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The Diagnosis and Cure for an Angry Heart


Of the seven daily sins, wrath may be the most difficult to acknowledge as sin. We’re miserable in envy, depressed by sloth, and embarrassed by gluttony and lust. Those sins may be hard to admit to others, but not usually to ourselves. Wrath is different. We can be deeply angry without fully realizing we’re sinning because anger usually feels so right. Wrath is a chameleon adept at disguise, quickly adapting its color to a variety of background reasons and rationalizations.
Of course, there is a kind of anger that is not sinful (see Eph. 4:26). Aristotle praised the person “who gets angry at the right things and with the right people, and also in the right way and at the right time and for the right length of time.” The word Aristotle used to describe this kind of person is the same word found in Scripture for meekness or gentleness. A meek or a gentle person is a person whose anger is rightly ordered: directed at the right things and expressed in an appropriate manner. Sometimes it is right to be angry. When wicked people prey upon the weak and helpless, love for the victims demands anger and the pursuit of justice. But sinful wrath is what Dorothy Sayers called the “love of justice perverted to revenge and spite.”
The Diagnosis of Anger
One of the best ways to detect and diagnose sinful anger is by setting it in contrast to love. When wrath overruns love, we’re in trouble. In the Bible’s most heart-probing description of love, Paul tells us that love “is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:5b). This description shows us the two primary ways that sinful anger violates love.
  • Hot anger. To be irritable is to get angry too easily. This is hot anger: the easily provoked, quick-tempered wrath of a volatile hothead who flies into fits of rage at the slightest aggravation. Proverbs shows us that this kind of anger is hasty, foolish, and given to stirring up strife. “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29). “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Proverbs 15:18).
  • Cold anger. To be resentful, on the other hand, is to stay angry for too long. This is cold anger: the record-keeping wrath of a bitter, cold-hearted person who always remembers, never forgets, and never forgives. 

Most of us are more given to one form than the other. Some people shout, others pout. But whether you spew or stew, the underlying anger in either case is a violation of love. And either violation is sinful and dangerous.
The basic root of anger is inordinate, idolatrous desire (see James 4:1-2). It may be a desire for justice, esteem, comfort, approval, or security. None of these desires are wrong in and of themselves. But when we seek the fulfillment of these desires in ways that violate God’s will, our desires have become inordinate. What follows may be a hot torrent of molten anger or the slow onslaught of an icy glacier of resentment. But one way or the other, idolatrous hearts are spring-loaded to retaliate once their desires are crossed.
The Prognosis of Wrath
But why is wrath dangerous? Is losing my temper really that big of a deal? Are the consequences of mismanaged anger really that severe? The answer of Scripture is yes. Sinful anger is both serious and dangerous for several reasons. It dishonors God (James 1:19-20), hurts relationships (Proverbs 29:22), gives Satan an advantage (Ephesians 4:26-27), hinders prayer (1 Timothy 2:8), and apart from grace, will keep you out of God’s kingdom (Galatians 5:19-21).
In short, wrath is dangerous because it is a capital sin. Capital sins are leading sins, gateway sins, vices that like military captains bring hordes of other sins with them. And this is particularly true of wrath. As Saint Gregory said, “From anger are produced strifes, swelling of mind, insults, clamour, indignation, blasphemies.” The sin of wrath spoils friendships, splits churches, shatters business partnerships, fractures marriages, alienates children and parents, and estranges our hearts from God. How many homes and churches are spiritual and emotional Chernobyls, devastated by the radioactive fallout of sinful wrath?
The Remedy for Wrath
How does the gospel equip us to deal with the sin of wrath? What is the remedy for anger? It begins by discerning the underlying idolatry of your heart (see James 4:1-2). What are you angry about? How have your desires been crossed? Having identified these desires, repent. In the words of Psalm 37:8: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” Most importantly, embrace a life of forgiveness. By this I mean not only that we should embrace the call to forgive others, but embrace also the forgiveness God freely offers to all who trust in Jesus.
Earlier we saw that the sin of wrath is a violation of love. But Jesus perfectly personified love, thus showing us the heart of God. And remember, “love is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:5b). This means God is not easily irritated! The Bible tells us repeatedly that God is “slow to anger.” He is not the least bit prone to temper tantrums. “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8). Nor is God resentful. He doesn’t keep a record of our wrongs (2 Cor. 5:18-19). If you are in Christ, my friend, you can rest assured that God is not keeping a tally chart of your sins.
God’s love and forgiveness are powerful enough to quench the flames of your hot temper or melt the glacier of your cold and bitter heart. Embracing a life of forgiveness means embracing God’s forgiveness and allowing the power of his grace to transform you so that you gradually become a more merciful and forgiving person.
This post was adapted from Hit List: Taking Aim at the Seven Deadly Sins (Cruciform Press, 2014) as a blogpost for The Gospel Project

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