Proverbs: Wisdom and Anger - 11th August 2013 - Dave Walker

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A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control. Proverbs 29:11

An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins. Proverbs 29:22

A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again. Proverbs 19:19

A quick-tempered man does foolish things, and a crafty man is hated. Proverbs 14:17

Better to live in a desolate place, than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife. Proverbs 21:19

Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared. Proverbs 22:24-25

A hot tempered man stirs up dissention, but a patient man calms a quarrel. Proverbs 15:18

A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly. Proverbs 14:29

A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense. Proverbs 19:11

Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city. Proverbs 16:32

We all know what it’s like to be angry. And we all know the devastating effects that anger can have. On a Tuesday morning a couple of years ago, at Churchfield farm in Cambridgeshire, a reindeer called Mr Frosty became angry. The handsome and normally docile creature, who had been lined up to pull Santa’s sleigh at Christmas events for children, went on a rampage where it smashed an iron gate off its hinges, and trampled its handler, who had to be taken to hospital. A paramedic who was first on the scene said “the crew needed to call for urgent back-up, as the animal was very angry.”

Let’s get this clear straight away: anger is not always bad. Anger itself is an emotional response; it’s a strong emotional reaction against something. Sometimes it’s right to react to things with anger. There are things in the world that are so bad that we must get angry at them. Horrible injustices and evil actions, for example. Those are things that should stir our emotions, we should be angry about them. And anger of that sort can achieve some quite impressive results: Malcolm X, the campaigner for racial equality said this: “Usually when people are sad, they don't do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change”. Lots of changes for the better have happened because a few people have been angry about injustice. Anger can be good.

But let’s be just as clear about this: more often than not, our anger is not good. Because when we are angry we act rashly, we do things we later regret, and we hurt people. That first reading we had from Ephesians includes this important instruction: “In your anger, do not sin.” The problem is that all too often, we sin more when we’re angry. 

So what principles can we learn from Proverbs to help us?

Key principle: Anger needs to be controlled

Proverbs 29:11 “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.”

Proverbs 29:22 “An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins.”

If anger is given free rein, it will do harm. If we act on our anger and let our anger direct what we do, then there is a very good chance that we will do a lot of damage. I don’t know about you, but when I’m angry I feel that everyone should know about it. I don’t blow my top and shout and rage: some people do that, I don’t. I’m more of a stomper. I thunder around the house, doing normal things, but more noisily than normal. In a sense, I’m trying to be restrained and controlled; but I’m not doing a good job of it. Everybody in the house knows that I’m angry. I’m giving full vent to my anger, in my own way.

And whether it’s noisy, or relatively quiet, that’s still a foolish thing to do. If anger is allowed free rein, it will do harm.

That’s especially true when we open our mouths. Proverbs 20:3 says “It is to a man’s honour to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel.” Speaking when angry, more often than not, results in quarrels. “If you speak when you’re angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret,” said one wise man. What we say is enormously powerful. We can very easily shape our words into a deadly weapon, aimed to do maximum damage. And if we let fly with our words when we are angry, then that’s exactly what will result.

Proverbs tells us to beware of hot tempered people, because if we get too close to them then we’re likely to get damaged ourselves.

Better to live in a desolate place, than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife. Proverbs 21:19

Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared. Proverbs 22:24-25

Being close to someone with a hot temper is a bit like living on the slopes of a volcano. When they explode, everyone around them is affected. Sarah and I have a good friend who works in an office with someone who’s always angry. And it completely transforms the atmosphere in the office when this woman is at work – everyone is on edge and starts sniping at each other. When the angry woman is on holiday, it’s all different. And the thing is, when our friend tells us about this grumpy woman, you can tell that she’s really angry too. Hot tempers are contagious.

In 21st century Britain, the TV is where lots of our moral guidance comes from. And if there’s one thing that TV loves, it’s a hot temper. Someone really blowing up, a blazing row or a temper tantrum – that makes great television. It boosts ratings. Eastenders is the classic isn’t it, but all the rest too, they thrive off hot tempers. And just like with all sorts of other things on the TV, what we see shapes our expectations of what is normal. Television breeds dramatic rows and sharp words spoken in anger.

This is one of those cases where we need to take care to listen to the voice of wisdom, rather than the voice of folly. Take note of these proverbs. Commit them to memory. If you’re someone who has a temper – either the sort of temper that flares up immediately, or the sort that bottles it up and then explodes later – these words are for you. Read them, think about them, pray about them. Make sure this is the advice you’re taking to heart.

But it’s all very well being told that we shouldn’t get angry; what practical things can we do to help us keep our anger under control? Here’s a couple of things:

1. Know why you get angry

We get angry about things that happen to us. So if we’re out in the car and someone cuts us up, we might become angry. Or if we spend time talking to someone who only ever goes on about themselves, we might become angry. But what we need to know is that those circumstances are just triggers for our anger. They are not the thing that causes anger. The real cause is an attitude inside us.

So let’s think about those two situations again. Why am I annoyed when someone cuts me up in the car? It’s because they are getting in my way. They are slowing me down, and stopping me from driving just like I want to. Or what about that conversation where that friend just goes on and on about himself? Why does that make me angry? Because it’s not enough about me for my liking. I have things that I want to say about me.

I get angry when I am inconvenienced. Do you see what I mean? Most of our anger, especially the harmful sort of anger, is selfish. It’s all about me. It’s helpful to know that, and to remember it in situations where I’m starting to get angry, because then I can take some practical steps.

Becoming a Christian involves a change of worldview. When someone becomes a Christian, they look at the world differently. Instead of having me at the centre of my world, as a Christian I realise that God is the centre of the world. He’s the one that everything depends upon, not me; and it’s his plans and purposes that matter most, not mine.

That’s an enormously liberating thing to discover. Because when I realise that then it means that I can see my anger for what it is. It doesn’t really matter if I get cut up in the car. That’s not important in the world. What is much more important is that I respond to that situation in a way that pleases God. There are other things that I need to be much more concerned about; things like praying for other people. Pray for whoever it is that’s annoying you – I find that helps things no end. Seeing things from a bible point of view helps as well because it makes us more aware of the fact of sinfulness – our own sinfulness, yes, but also the sinfulness of others. We’re all sinful, says the Bible. And if we take that to heart and stop thinking that we are perfect and others ought to be the same, then we will find that we are less quick to get annoyed when others get things wrong.

So be aware of why you get angry. And the other thing, positively, is this:

2. Work hard at patience.

Proverbs rates patience very highly. Look back at the sheet: A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offence. Proverbs 19:11

A hot tempered man stirs up dissention, but a patient man calms a quarrel. Proverbs 15:18

A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly. Proverbs 14:29

Patience in proverbs is the opposite of a hot temper. If the fool’s way is to get angry quickly, the wise man is patient.

Now being patient doesn’t mean that you never get angry. Rather, to be patient is to be slow to anger. We’ve said that there are some things that it’s right to be angry about: evil and injustice and so on. But it’s never right to fly into a rage. Patience is about taking time to weigh up the situation properly: is it something that we should be angry about? Or is it just something that doesn’t really matter, which I’m blowing out of proportion because of my selfishness?

Those of us who have children will know that there are times that we need to be angry as parents. We need to enforce discipline; we need to show our children that some things are clearly wrong. But if we lose our temper when we do that then it will be much less effective and we will be much more likely to do something we’ll regret.

It’s a simple principle, isn’t it? Be patient; be slow to anger. But it’s difficult to do. How are we going to get patience, and incorporate it into our day to day mode of living?

Well, just like we said last week, gaining wisdom begins with God. It comes from him. And so if we are to gain and practice wisdom, that needs to be focused upon and driven by God himself.

In many places in the Bible God defines himself as “slow to anger.” It’s a key characteristic of who he is. Listen to this from Exodus 34: [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Exodus 34:6

God is not narky; he doesn’t fly into a rage. He is slow to anger. But there are some things that he angry about: God is genuinely angry about evil and sin; he is hostile to it; he will not tolerate it. And he will act upon his anger. He promises in the Bible that he will destroy all evil and sin once and for all. And when he does so, it will be completely fair, a properly measured response; no more and no less than what is deserved. God delays his anger. He is patient. But he will carry it out in the right way at the right time.

Jesus is the one who reveals God’s character to us fully, and so it’s no surprise that we see this sort of thing in Jesus’ life on earth. In Mark’s gospel, you can turn to it if you want, it’s Mark chapter 11 – there we read of Jesus riding into Jerusalem and going to the temple. Jesus knew that 600 years or so before, God had spoken against the temple and promised that he would destroy it because of the corrupt practices that were going on there. So that evening ends in anti-climax – Jesus “looked around” we are told (v11), and then he goes again. He’s seen all that he needs to see. He knows what needs to be done. He’s angry. And yet he delays in acting on his anger. The next morning he returns and turns over the tables of the money changers and drives them out. And as he does so he quotes Jeremiah from the Old Testament 600 years before: God describing the place as a “den of thieves.” Yes, Jesus is angry, spectacularly so. But this is a measured and appropriate response to injustice and evil.

The temple is just one example of how God will deal with all the evil in the world: a delayed response, but a just and fair response. All evil will be swept away. When we sin, and we do, God does not smite us instantly. But he will do something about our sin. He will express that anger ultimately. That’s what God’s final judgment is all about.

And remarkably, the cross of Jesus tells us that God has acted on his anger, in a way that means that we can be rescued from it. As Jesus died on the cross, God unleashed all of his anger against our sin upon Jesus. Jesus himself willingly faced God’s anger for us. Which means that if we believe in Jesus, then God’s anger will never fall upon us. It’s not that God has swept our sin under the carpet; he hasn’t. He has, in a properly measured way, punished our sin, on the cross.

And so the cross is ultimately where anger can be put at rest. God’s anger against us, first and foremost, if we believe and trust in Jesus. But also our anger against each other. If someone has done something to upset you, and you feel that anger rising, and you’re looking for a way to be patient and not let the anger take control of you; remember the cross.

God has punished all the evil that matters on the cross. If you are a believer in Christ then he has punished and removed all your evil. He has forgiven you. So whatever that person has done against you will not be overlooked, or swept under the carpet. If that person believes in Jesus, then that wrong thing they’ve done has already been taken by Jesus upon himself. It’s been dealt with. Which means you don’t have to deal with it. You don’t have to unleash your anger against that person, above and beyond what God has done. As the last verse of that reading we had from Ephesians puts it: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

The ability to be patient rather than to get angry, comes from God. It is made possible by what Jesus has done on the cross. That is our starting point as Christians. We are enabled to forgive; we are enabled to be patient, slow to anger, not given to rage, because that is what God has done for us.