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Anger without Sin

March 15th, 2019

Be angry and sin not… (Ephesians 4:26)

Mark 3:5 records that Jesus was angry at the unbelief of the people: “And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” How is this possible?

Here is an area that we struggle in. Some people, in the name of Christianity, believe that all we can do is to be victims, to be abused by the world and let the world abuse us.

Can anger ever be good? Man’s anger isn’t: “The wrath of man works not the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). What anger that originates from our fallen natures is always wrong and leads to the escalation of harm to others. Anger, in so far as it includes resentment, vengeance, revenge, retaliation, a desire to hurt others, that type of anger is unholy. We are warned:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21 ESV)

But there is another type of anger, one based on God’s justice. This good anger is what we must have in order to “overcome evil with good.” Anger that is engendered by the Word and Spirit of God, is good. This is the anger that without hatred and retaliation stands against evil and says No to injustice and mistreatment. This is what the apostle is advising – be angry for the right reasons and in the right way and do not let this righteous anger lead you into personal vendettas or vengeance. In English we are more likely to call it “righteous indignation” (“gerechte Entrüstung” in German, or “indignacion justa” in Spanish, or “indignation fondée” in French).

We live, as men have always lived, in very confusing times. The world takes up causes and screams against injustices in human anger, lashing out vindictively and unmercifully. They are not so much interested in justice being done as the “bad people” being punished. In gross ignorance and anger, they lash out without thought or “cool reflection” of all the intricacies of the problem. In man’s anger they condemn others and almost always we are guaranteed an escalation of injustice and violence. Bishop Joseph Butler wrote:

Malice or resentment towards any man hath plainly a tendency to beget the same passion in him who is the object of it, and this again increases it in the other. It is of the very nature of this vice to propagate itself, not only by way of example, which it does in common with other vices, but in peculiar way of its own; for resentment itself, as well as what is done in consequence of it, is the object of resentment. Hence it comes to pass, that the first offence, even when so slight as presently to be dropped and forgotten, becomes the occasion of entering into a long intercourse of ill offices.*

Godly anger, on the other hand, condemns the sin, but offers the hand of grace even to the sinner. True godly anger is not just indignant because of what the “sinner” has done to an “innocent” (if such designations can truly be used with distinction), but what the “sinner” has done to himself, to his own heart, in making himself an agent of pain and injustice to others.

When I was a missionary on the island of Mindanao, Philippines, I saw a poor young mother personify this godly anger on a street corner holding onto her purse while her drunken husband tried to wrestle it away from her. He was known as an addict to gambling and alcohol, and he wanted to take the last bit of money they had so he could gamble and drink it away. The young wife’s jaw was set and she was determined not to let her children’s food and shelter and education be taken from them. She held on to her purse and no amount of tugging on her husband’s part got it out of her grasp.

n her eyes was also the sternness of disappointment in her husband for not being the man he should be, but there was no hint of retaliation. Broken-heartedness, pain, and disappointment were all there, etched in her young eyes that were ageing all too quickly. But there was also courageous anger and a defence against injustice. Eventually her husband walked away in shame, and I hoped that he would become a better man one day.

This was the same anger as was in the heart of the prodigal’s father, who was angry at what the world had done to his son, angry with his son for allowing it to be done to him, angry at him also for what he had done to himself and others, but welcoming of his return. The anger at the world in that father’s heart never spilled over to sinful vengeance and every day he hoped his son would return.

So the Spirit inspired the apostle to command us to be angry for the right reasons and in the right way, but do not let this godly anger bleed over into sinful vengefulness. This is the serious work of all Christians – to stand against injustices, to stand firm, to stand offering grace to all, and to stand without vehemence or human anger.

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*To any serious study of this subject, I recommend the writings of Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), in particular his two sermons “On Resentment” found in Fifteen Sermons. This quotation is from http://anglicanhistory.org/butler/rolls/

Another note: Cannot we see the extreme of vindictiveness in the ill-advised retaliatory policies toward Germany after the First World War by France and Britain? It was the vindictiveness and the resentment it engendered that gave rise to the Second World War. How much better it is when nations seek justice and forgive the past and seek to move toward a better future together.

Ephesians, justice

The Grace to Serve

March 4th, 2019

Now to each one of us grace has been given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7)

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but think of yourself with sober judgment, according to the measure of faith God has given you…each member belongs to one another. (Romans 12:3-5)

According to these passages above, I am only a pastor-teacher by the grace of God. There is nothing that I have ever done, accomplished, or achieved that would or could qualify me for this position. It is given by the grace of God for the benefit of the church.

Now, I have studied and have been mentored and have served in fruitful ministries. I have, in fact, taught at seminaries and mentored other ministers. But all of this was after the fact of the calling, which came not by anything that I deserved or earned, but by His grace

We stand in grace

If we forget this fact we are apt to steal the glory from God, to brag about what we have done or to emphasize our education, etc. And if we do so, the power that is “from on high” with which we are to be clothed will be stripped from us (Luke 24:49).  Study and wisdom and experience, along with faith and spiritual knowledge gained along the path of our discipleship, the lessons of knowing Christ – all of this can only be of benefit if we stand and rest in God’s grace, in His undeserved favor.

Christ emphatically said that without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). And though we are prone to evaluate a pastor on the basis of his work, his education, and his accomplishments – this tendency belies the spiritual reality that is dependent on Christ. We may feel that an older minister is “safer” than a younger one, and the scripture does warn us against ordaining too young a man or too new a Christian (1 Tim. 5:22 and 3:6), but the point of these warnings is that a younger man may be tempted with pride.  The pastor is not called “elder” for no reason.

But, as the saying goes, “There is no fool like an old fool,” and an older minister may also forget this essential spiritual lesson and become proud. Experience counts for something, but the essential and indispensable experience of the Christian life is the experience of daily dependence on God. No other type of “experience” suffices for this experience. If we stand at all, we must stand in grace and in the power and wisdom that we do not deserve, but rather is given freely by Christ to His people.

We belong to one another

Another sub-principle of this larger principle of serving in grace is that because it is by grace, we belong to one another. The pastor is called by God’s grace to serve as Christ’s representative to the body. He does not live to himself or for himself. We need one another. His gifts must be exercised for the benefit of the body, as all gifts must be.

Like all men, he has need for physical rest, for sleep, for healthy food, and for friendship. God will provide miraculous physical and emotional power when He deems them necessary, but the pastor-teacher should not put “God to the test” by demanding such things. As Paul advised his companions to take some food for their own strengthening (Acts 27:33-34), and as he said that exercise profits a man (1 Tim. 4:8), so the pastor should take care of himself physically and emotionally. And let us not forget his own obligation to his family, as the scripture says, “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).

Yet the pastor-teacher must realize that he is sent by Christ to be the shepherd of God’s people. He must be available to people to teach and to feed them the word of God. He must be patient and diligent and gracious, just as Christ was gracious.

When to say no

Is there ever a time when a minister of the gospel might refuse to deal with someone? Clearly there is. When disrespect is expressed: “Do not let anyone despise you” (Titus 2:15). When unbelief is obvious: “And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Matt. 13:58). When responsive people are available to be found elsewhere: “Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).

Now I must admit that here is an area that I struggle in – as do most ministers – because of the contrasting commands of God, and perhaps “balancing” is a better word than “contrasting.”  Christ commanded His disciples to look for the “son of peace” (Luke 10:6), or the responsive soul, when doing ministry. If he was not found, they were to move on until they found him. We are to focus our ministry on those who respond, and not to waste our time trying to help those who refuse to believe and come to the truth.

But the other extreme is when we begin to give up on people too quickly, when we neglect the numerous commands of being steadfast and patient with others. Surely, this attitude reveals pride and leads us into a judgmental spirit. So we must depend on the Spirit to show us when we should not waste our time on the hard-hearted and how we should invest our time in lives that are responsive to God’s Word.

Paul gave an example of dealing with these tensions in ministry, as he began preaching in the synagogue in Ephesus but after resistance took his ministry to a public lecture hall (Acts 19:8-10).

The principles are clear enough, but the application can be difficult. When is the decision to stop dealing with one class of people and start dealing with a more responsive class right to make? We have no clear answer except by the leadership of the Holy Spirit. But as we follow Him He will lead us where He knows our ministry should be.

Ephesians, Spiritual Leadership