This week we turn in the Sermon on the Mount to how living in the kingdom of God can transform our angry hearts.
Jesus begins by talking about three things we should not do and concludes with two positive illustrations about what a kingdom-of-God-kind-of-person does.
This week as we look at how to live in the Kingdom of God when it comes to anger.
This week in the sermon on the mount Jesus redefines what it means to be a good person when it comes to dealing with anger.
These are amazing (initially kind of confusing) but ultimately deeply inspiring words from Jesus.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:21-26)
Anger is a universal human problem.
In the ancient world, there were no police departments or district attorneys. The rich and powerful could get away with anything.
So the writers of the Old Testament protect the weak, which is where Jesus starts.
The writers of the Old Testament said, “You shall not murder…”
If someone was killed, then a blood avenger could chase them down and execute the murderer. The blood avenger was usually the fastest, strongest, toughest guy in the family, like the middle linebacker of the family or something like that.
That was actually a huge step forward in justice in the ancient world.
But over time human nature being what it is, people in Israel started thinking that when it comes to anger, there are two kinds of people — good people and bad people, murderers and non-murderers.
“As long as I haven’t actually murdered someone, then I’m in the good category. I’m in the clear in regard to this law.”
So as Jesus begins to describe what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God, he starts with anger.
Then (we’ll look at this next week) he goes on to sexuality, then relational unhappiness, dishonesty, and so on.
Now the order of topics in the Sermon on the Mount is very important. The Sermon on the Mount is often treated as a collection of just random sayings, but it’s not.
I believe Jesus starts with anger for a profound reason, and that is — anger is the number one offender of spiritual life.
If you read through the bible, starting from the beginning, you see Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers — characters in the bible deal with anger issues all the way through.
If you look at life today — according to the National Center on Domestic Violence, 20 people a minute are physically abused by an intimate partner.
Look at unpleasant workplaces, miserable marriages. The vast majority of human wrongdoing involves anger and contempt.
If we could eliminate anger problems, we would eliminate the single greatest cause of human misery.
Now why is anger the number one problem?
It has to do with this idea of “your kingdom being where what you say goes” that we talked about at the beginning of this series.
We talked about how the good news Jesus came to proclaim is that the kingdom of God is now available to human being like you and me, and it has come through Jesus. The kingdom of God is the reality of the presence and power of God that is now available to human beings like you and me. We can live in it if we want to.
We also talked about the kingdom of this earth and how we all have our own little kingdom. Your kingdom is where what you say goes. It’s where your will is in charge. Your will is your ability to choose, to create, to initiate. Your will is a form of energy.
So what’s anger?
First of all, anger is a response when your will gets blocked, when what you say is not going the way you want it to go. Anger is the spontaneous response you experience when your will gets thwarted.
So anger is your will saying, “Hey! Something is getting in my way!”
The will is energy, so anger is a form of negative personal energy.
Now, the purpose of anger is to alert us that something is wrong and to energize us to take action and correct it.
And this almost always immediately moves to, “I want to harm whatever it is that obstructs my will. I want to destroy it.”
If I’m running late for an important meeting and I’m in a hurry. And I notice my shoe is untied. And I bend down to tie it, and I’m in such a hurry that I pull it really hard, and it breaks.
My first thought is, “This stupid shoelace!”
Now a shoelace can’t be stupid because it doesn’t have intellectual capacity. We have smartphones. We don’t have smart shoelaces.
But when I’m angry, I want to harm that stupid shoelace! That shoelace thwarted my will, so it should be destroyed.
Now, here’s the problem. Is the world set up to always please your will?
So you get angry a lot.
If you play golf, you know golfers will often hit a bad shot and get angry.
But they don’t get angry at themselves. They’ll break their golf club because IT hit the bad shot. They will the destruction of their golf club.
There was a man whose car got stuck in snow recently. The man got furious. He took the tire iron and smashed the windows of his own car, got out a pistol, and shot all four tires, reloaded, and emptied a clip into the car.
The police department said it was a case of “autocide.”
Now, of course, the number one cause of anger in people is not shoelaces, golf clubs, or cars.
Do you know what it is?
It’s other people.
Pretty soon I think — not, “That stupid shoelace” or, “That stupid golf club.” I think, “That stupid person.”
Okay, now the problem Jesus is concerned about is not just that my emotion is aroused. The problem is not even just that my will has been thwarted.
The problem now is that I want to harm another person.
I want to believe they’re stupid, they’re bad, and deserving of bad things.
See, this is the second dimension of anger now. Anger is not just when my will gets thwarted. It moves really quickly to — the will to harm. I want to harm.
Now, to Jesus it’s never okay to want to harm another person.
Another way to put that is — to Jesus it’s never okay to stop willing the good for another person.
Let me say that again. To Jesus, in the kingdom of God, it is never okay to stop willing the good for another person. Never!
That’s why he’s so concerned about anger. That’s why it’s so fundamental.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
Jesus uses a word here that indicates intense anger.
And he deliberately describes the consequence in identical languages.
“‘…anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry… will be subject to judgment.”
Really? Just getting angry?
Now, this seems so unattainable — like such an impossibly high bar — that people have tried all kinds of ways to finagle their way out of actually having to obey what Jesus said here.
Some people say, “In the Sermon on the Mount he was offering the kingdom of heaven to Israel. The Sermon on the Mount was an ethic for that kingdom, but Israel refused to make him king. So the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t really apply to us. We don’t have to worry about that.”
That’s not true.
Some people have said Jesus is referring here to unjustified anger. So from that point of view, he must have meant only unjustified anger is forbidden.
This was so prevalent, many of our bibles (depending on your translation) will have a footnote that says some ancient manuscripts added the phrase, “anyone who is angry ‘without cause’ at their brother or sister…”
In the ancient world, of course they had no printing presses, so every Bible was hand copied.
What happened was scribes were copying the text, and when they would get to this part they would think, “Oh Jesus couldn’t have meant angry for any reason. He must have meant if you’re angry without cause.” So they actually added those words.
In other words, they were saying, “Unjustified anger is bad, but I’m experiencing righteous indignation. So of course that’s okay.”
This is not what Jesus was saying.
Some people say Jesus has taken the high bar of Moses and made it even higher so we would realize it’s impossible to obey Jesus.
“So as long as we believe the right doctrine about Jesus, we can go to heaven without ever intending to obey him.”
Jesus said, “…anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
When people reinterpret Jesus so they don’t have to obey what he said about not getting angry, IT MAKES ME ANGRY… although really it’s more righteous indignation.
You know, one of the dangers of anger is we can enjoy it. I like it because it makes me feel superior.
You never meet a humble, angry person. Anger feeds human vanity.
Jesus’ teaching on this is really simple. It’s not particularly complex. It’s not hyperbole.
God never stops willing the good, ever, for anyone. Never!
God is perfectly capable of simultaneously discerning, judging, someone’s actions as evil, of knowing precisely how much of the responsibility for that is their genetics, how much is on the environment, how much is their personal choice, and at the same time, wholeheartedly willing that person’s good. God can do that!
But for me, as soon as I start to indulge anger I tend to stop willing the good for the person I’m angry at.
As soon as I cease to will someone’s good (this is not a feeling; this is an act of the will), then God’s will is not being done in my life.
God always judges that as an evil thing — “I’m choosing the kingdom of self over the kingdom of God.”
You see, Jesus knows anger is dangerous because it justifies not willing the good of another person.
Then it moves to another phase of anger. Anger is contempt that leaks out of us.
Jesus goes on because indulged anger never stays buried. It leaks out into my words and my actions.
He gives two pictures of this.
Anyone who says, “Raca” is answerable to the court, but anyone who says, “You fool!” is in danger of the fires of hell.
Now raca in that day was an insult. It was a guttural sound, like the sound you would make if you were about to spit on someone. Spit is a gesture of contempt. Anger moves us toward contempt.
“You fool” would be like us saying, “You idiot” or “You worthless piece of…” Often contempt involves the language of filth.
Now some people will read what Jesus said here and think, “I don’t explode. I don’t yell. I don’t curse. So I don’t have an anger problem.”
Oh yes you do.
We have an infinite number of ways to express anger.
How we look at someone.
How we don’t look at someone.
How we speak to someone.
How we don’t speak to someone.
How we touch someone.
How we avoid touching someone.
Placating someone out of fear, or appeasing wrongly can be every bit as unloving and sinful as exploding in wrath.
Now here’s the point. Jesus is not giving a new set of harder rules.
Sometimes people mistakenly read Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as giving a new list of hard rules.
Sometimes people will think, “Well okay, now I’m not allowed to murder anyone, I can’t call them raca, and I can’t call them fool. But fortunately there are a lot of other bad words I can use.”
See, Jesus is not giving new rules here. He’s illustrating what it looks like to have an aim, a heart, that’s pervaded by love — to will the good.
This is the surpassing goodness that we talked about last week.
There’s a bumper sticker in our day — “There is no excuse for domestic violence,” and there is no excuse for domestic violence. It is evil in God’s sight. It must be stopped.
And here’s the key. You cannot eliminate domestic violence by trying really hard to eliminate domestic violence… while leaving the toxic angry thoughts, desires, and feelings of the heart unchanged.
You can’t avoid anger by trying really hard to avoid anger.
If my heart is not transformed, anger — the will to harm — and sin will triumph and leak out of me in a thousand unseen ways.
Anger eats behavior modification for breakfast.
Now we turn in the sermon on the mount to how living in the kingdom of God can transform our angry hearts. What does that look like?
Jesus began by talking about three things you don’t do.
You don’t live with will to harm.
You don’t say destructive things like, “Raca.”
You don’t say, “You fool.”
Then he goes on to give two positive illustrations to what a kingdom of God kind of person does — a person living with surpassing goodness.
Again, these aren’t laws. These are illustrations.
Alright, so let’s look at how to live in the kingdom of God when it comes to anger.
The methods Jesus talks about are…
1. Make reconciling a broken relationship a higher priority than religious activity.
Jesus says, “When you’re offering your gift at the altar, when you’re about to do something religious, and you remember someone has a problem with you.”
Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe it’s a mix. It doesn’t matter.
Jesus says, “Do reconciliation first. That’s what love would do.”
I was flying to Las Vegas recently for a soccer tournament with my son. (Not the ideal family friendly location to host a soccer tournament for young boys, but that’s the topic for next week.)
Through carelessness on my part, we were running late for the airport.
We had to hurry like crazy. We were in the security line, and it was taking forever.
People in this line are so self-centered.
They bring little children who move so incredibly slow.
They take computers out of bags with no sense of urgency.
They’re wearing shoes that have to be untied and belts that have to be unbuckled when they know they’re going to have to take them off.
I realized when I was standing there I was viewing every person in front of me as my adversary. They were obstacles to me getting through the line.
Now, it’s my fault I’m late, but I’m holding everyone around me in contempt. In that moment in my mind and heart, this is what was going on inside of me. “Fool! Fool! Fool! Fool! Fool!”
If it’s not coming out of my mouth, it is for sure in my eyes, on my face, and in my body language.
You see, here’s the thing. I do this even when I don’t have any deadline at all because I’m just addicted to hurry… and self.
And the invitation from Jesus is not, “Okay, grit your teeth, and avoid murder. Try really hard not to say raca or fool. Everything else is fair game.”
His invitation is this — Die to your ego. Die to yourself. Die to the kingdom of self.
Live in the reality, and recognize, “I cannot by the force of my tremendous will, will a line to move faster. I’m not in charge of airports, traffic, or weather. I live in God’s kingdom, not mine.”
I can let go of everything that is not in my control, and I can actually will the good for the people around me.
So I actually started doing that in that line. I just started talking pleasantly to people. “What a great jacket! Where did you get that jacket? Can I help you get that in the bin a little more quickly?”
And we got to Las Vegas on time.
And you know what? Even if we had gotten there late, God wouldn’t have been as concerned about us being late as he was with the kind of heart I was going with.
In God’s kingdom, here’s the thing. I cease to be attached to my will being done. I cease to be attached to it, and I live in the goodness of God’s kingdom. That’s what life without anger consists of.
One of the things people do who are doing that is they seek to reconcile broken relationships before engaging in religious activity.
Now I want to talk about this for a moment.
Sometimes reconciling will be really complex. I know. It may take time. It may take years. It may take multiple conversations. I get it.
And part of the reconciliation process is in the hands of the other person. They may never be willing to do that.
But my guess is some of you are rationalizing not doing this.
You’re saying, “Hey, this problem is not my fault. This relational breakdown is not my responsibility. He should make the first move. I know she’ll never change. I’m harboring no ill will, so I’m in compliance on this one. I don’t have to go seek reconciliation. My conscience is clear. I’m not living with angry feelings.”
Jesus didn’t say, “If your brother or sister has a problem with you, manage your emotions so you don’t feel anger.” That’s not what he said.
Contempt avoidance is not love. Love wills the good.
I know it can be complex. I know the other person might be utterly hardhearted. I get it. Maybe all you can offer God is genuine willingness.
But, here’s the deal — a lot of people let themselves off the hook when it comes to reconciliation.
Love seeks reconciliation. Love wills reconciliation.
If you’re not doing that, if your words and your actions are not moving you toward reconciliation, if you’re not open for it, don’t kid yourself that you’re obeying Jesus.
You can’t control the outcome, but you can give your heart.
Alright, Jesus gives another way to live in the kingdom of God when it comes to anger.
2. Be genuinely kind toward your adversary.
He gives the second illustration, which is a courtroom deal.
Suppose someone is taking you to court. You’re in a legal or financial battle with them. What do you do?
Jesus said, “Settle matters quickly…”
The word he used actually means, “Make friends with. Be kind to.”
In other words, you genuinely try to understand and help that person.
Now, that may not mean doing what they want. But for sure it means seeking to do what’s best for them in God’s eyes.
That might be a legal deal. I know some of you have been through that and it has been very difficult.
Maybe you have a rival at work who has mistreated you.
Maybe you have an enemy at school.
Maybe you have a difficult neighbor.
Maybe you have a very troubled or troublesome ex-spouse.
Pray for them. Ask God to show you where and how you can extend kindness to them, not out of fear, not out of obligation, but out of love.
Maybe there’s not a way to do this, but ask God to show you.
The main point with these examples (seek reconciliation; be kind toward your adversary) isn’t — Do these behaviors like they’re new laws.
Jesus is inviting us to ponder, “What kind of thought life, what kind of feelings and moods, what habits of mind, body, and speech would you find in the kind of person who would just routinely pursue reconciliation above religious correctness, who would reach out in non-anxious, relaxed kindness to win over an adversary?”
When we ponder this, we begin to get a vision for righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees.
Alright, two more practices in our pursuit of living free from anger in the kingdom of God.
3. Be intentional about how you feed your mind.
Our culture will feed your mind to make you angry.
I know so many people who in the last couple years have given up listening to talk radio because it’s just about stoking anger and contempt at political opposition.
True story. I heard a political commentator on one side of the spectrum say, “Hey, if the pastor at your church uses the phrase ‘social justice,’ stop going to that church.”
The same week, I heard a political commentator on the other side of the spectrum say, “Hey, if this week your pastor does not preach about the violation of social justice, stop going to that church.”
My suggestion is stop listening to those guys.
Here’s some advice from Jesus — if someone forces you to go with them one mile, go with them two.
Now the backdrop everyone would have known in that day is — legally a Roman soldier could force an Israelite to carry their backpack one mile. Those soldiers were the hated enemies, politically and religiously.
Jesus says, “Now if you’re living in the kingdom of God, will the good of your Roman soldier enemies, not only when they force you, ‘Carry that backpack a mile.’ When you get to the end of that trip, ask them, ‘Could I help you some more? Could I carry it another mile?’”
Now, Jesus is not giving a law here. He’s not saying, “Say, ‘Well, I’m taking your pack another mile because Jesus said I have to. You don’t want to go another mile? Too bad. Jesus said I have to. So I’m taking the pack another mile.’”
It’s not a law. It’s an illustration.
So this week, go out of your way to do something kind for someone with whom you ardently disagree politically or spiritually.
Ask God to help you do it with a generous spirit, not gritted teeth.
Then one more thing Jesus mentioned.
4. Remember the cross is about grace.
You see, the cross reminds us that there is a great battle between good and evil, between love and anger.
Anger tells me, “It’s okay to will the bad for this contemptible person.”
That’s why almost all evil involves anger. That’s why Jesus starts with anger.
The battleground between good and evil, between love and anger, is in my soul, my will.
So this week, every time your will gets thwarted (and it will get thwarted a lot), just starting with little ways, use it as an opportunity to die to your will, to hand your will over to God, to say, “God, your will be done, not mine.”
Out of the unhurried, unworried abundance of the kingdom of God, I can know the freedom of the surrendered will and learn the joy of a loving heart. “Your will be done God, not mine.”
In light of the cross, remember grace this week.
I’ve been quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr quite a bit lately.
There’s another Martin Luther who lived at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, who had a lot of anger issues. A lot of them!
He was often overwhelmed by a sense of guilt. It was largely out of that that his understanding of the grace of God just wrecked him.
One time he was trying to pray, and he said the Devil flooded him with a list of his sins.
Instead of saying, “No, I haven’t sinned” or denying them, Luther said to the Devil, “Think harder, Devil. There must be more.”
The Devil did think harder and listed a lot more.
Then Luther said to the Devil, “Now write over all those sins in red ink, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.’”
This week, remember the cross is about grace. Grace alone.
Don’t let anger win in you. Let the cross win in you. Let grace abound in you.
I can’t even begin to imagine what God could do with a community of people who are surrendering their anger to the kingdom of Jesus, the kingdom of the cross. Let’s be that community.
Alright, let me pray for you as Michaela and the team come to lead us in a closing song.
Blue Oaks Church