Anger is not a vice to put off. It’s an emotion to handle with self-control.
James F. Borgwardt
By the time you read this article, the Pixar movie Inside Out has enjoyed at least a three-month run that has perhaps made it one of the highest grossing movies of all time. Almost universally, critics and movie-goers alike have applauded its creative brilliance: it engages young and old equally well, it’s masterfully told, and it shows a deep understanding of the complex human experience.
That last point is especially true of Inside Out. If you’re one of the handful of people who haven’t seen either the movie or its previews, Pixar imagines for us how the five core emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger work inside the control center of an 11 year old in a way that influences her decisions, memories, and identity. What happens on the inside affects how she behaves on the outside and reacts to events in her life. As you might guess, psychologists love the movie and think that many folks will learn a lot about how the interaction of our emotions affect our behavior.
CHRISTIAN LIFE INSIDE OUT
This series on sanctification was initially going to be titled “Living Your Life Inside Out,” because Christian living begins in the heart and mind before it shows itself in outward behavior. We’ve loosely followed Paul’s specific guidelines on Christian living in the last half of Ephesians chapter 4. There the apostle encourages believers to actively “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22). And because nature hates a vacuum, Paul tells us to “be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23,24).
Paul starts on the inside with motives and attitudes before considering the outward behavior that follows. And so must we. This series began with God’s conversion of us from death to life and understanding our new identity in Christ. Then we considered specific actions: speaking truthfully and giving generously. Next in Paul’s list is anger.
But anger is different. It’s an emotion, unlike the vices of lying, miserliness and greed. Our basic emotions are all important elements of our make-up, both as humans and as Christians.
It’s fascinating how Inside Out begins the movie with Joy as the default emotion. That is so American, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to be happy all the time? Our most beloved founding document declares that we have the “unalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness.” Even many Christians adopt the skewed notion that “God just wants me to be happy” to rationalize sin.
This idea that we must be happy all the time is dangerous both spiritually and psychologically. People treat sadness as an unwanted emotion and therefore push it out of their lives. Not only is that a bad idea, but it’s also not even possible! Telling a depressed person to cheer herself up is just as effective as an insomniac telling himself to fall asleep. It’s genuinely sad that countless people have suffered long-term emotional damage by being trained in childhood never to display sadness.
The movie is countercultural in a very good way. It teaches us that sadness is often essential to our overall well-being. It even serves our long-term joy.
EMOTIONS FROM GOD’S PERSPECTIVE
God’s Word is countercultural in the very best way. It teaches us how our God-given emotions serve our eternal well-being when they find their direction from the Bible. And that direction is clear.
God certainly experienced human sadness. “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) at Lazarus’ death when he saw how death, the intruder into God’s perfect creation, devastated the hearts of the mourners. His deepest sadness—deeper than you or I will ever know—was suffering his Father’s abandonment on the cross. All the while he knew that most people would reject his gracious gift of salvation.
God knows joy. Remarkably, his greatest joy is to spend eternity with us! When we come to know God and appreciate his salvation, our greatest joy is spending eternity with him.
He is, therefore, filled with disgust at anything that threatens our eternal relationship or that perverts his intentions for the earthly gifts he’s given us. As we grow in his likeness, we’re filled with that same disgust over sin—especially our own sin. That guards us against self-righteousness when dealing with the sin of others.
And while we wouldn’t say that God feels fear, Jesus certainly wrestled with a real and natural human aversion to his approaching crucifixion. His sweat in the Garden proves it. But through his resurrection, he has removed our fear of sin’s power, death’s dominion, and eternal condemnation. Those devilish fears are now replaced with one that serves our eternal good: We now fear losing the forgiveness, life, and salvation God has so richly given us.
Finally, God gets angry. Consider Jesus when he cleared the temple (Mark 11:15-17). He wasn’t on the receiving end of the whip, but on the giving end! His Father’s house had been turned from the place where a person received the gift of God’s forgiveness into a place of transactions and price-gouging. Of course he got angry! His Father was dishonored and his people abused.
CONTROLLING OUR RIGHTEOUS ANGER
As God’s children restored to his image, he expects us to get angry too. We don’t blindly pass by human cruelty, like the abuse of children or spouses. We don’t become comfortable with the ongoing tragedy that 50 million God-given lives have been cut short in this country through abortion.
So Paul doesn’t tells us to “put off” anger, because anger’s not a vice to put off. It’s an emotion to handle with self-control. Yes, be angry when God’s will is trampled underfoot. But don’t sin.
Ah, that’s the hard part! We admit that most of our anger is not the righteous kind, but the selfish kind. God knows this, so he had the apostle add more guidance: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. . . . Get rid of all bitterness, rage and [sinful] anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (vs. 26,27,31). Don’t hang onto anger, or the devil will lead you into bitterness, which can consume you. Learn how to deal with it properly. Focus your anger on the devil who is working to destroy your relationships. Then work through a conflict with your spouse or your friend. Ask for help, if you can’t do it yourself. It’s that important.
Most of all, look again and again at how your God handles anger. He gets angry but never bitter. He hates our sin but bears us no ill will. He has forgiven you a far greater debt than any debt someone might owe you.
That leads us to next month’s final topic in these articles on sanctification. It’s also the most countercultural: forgiveness.
James Borgwardt is pastor at Redeemer, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
This is the fifth article in a six-part series on sanctification and good works.
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Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 102, Number 10
Issue: October 2015
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