In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus broaches a surprising topic early on—anger and what to do with it (Matthew 5:21-26). Before talking about giving or prayer or marriage or daily worry (and a variety of other concerns), he chooses to address the issue of anger. I find this striking.

He also makes the outrageous step of linking anger with murder. Festering insult (5:22) of another—ranging from partisan politics to church pews—may not physically harm that person, but you’ve perhaps killed them in your mind many times. Jesus says both the act and the thought are serious, liable to judgment.

This won’t be the last time Jesus encourages disciples to exercise control over thoughts and feelings. He makes a strong case, suggesting how inner emotions (given time to percolate) inevitably have destructive outer ramifications. If you don’t have a prayer life, he seems to be saying, you’d better get one.

Most murders in our country don’t happen on the spur of the moment. They may occur in the heat of the moment but no doubt after a long period of silent conflict—inner hatred. Related, no one suddenly decides to “have an affair” one winter evening. “Hey, here’s an idea. Let’s me and you engage in some adultery today.” No. Both sins are slowly hatched via simmering internal darkness.

But how do we deal with something as insidious as anger? I sometimes harbor bad thoughts about complete strangers standing in front of me in the checkout line. My loving mother, very active in her congregation, told me not long before she died that she’d had it with local traffic and politely raised a certain finger at a man who stole her parking space.

We are a tightly wound nation these days. As someone wryly noted, “If people were judged on thoughts alone, we’d all be behind bars.” Most of us (including this pastor) are rather darkly warped individuals between the ears. How can Jesus hold us accountable for something as natural as anger?

The Bible doesn’t condemn all types of anger. Righteous anger is often a prelude to biblical justice. Jesus knocks over tables in the temple and scatters money changers with a whip and words, revealing he’s no pushover. Isaiah and Jeremiah railed against the religious leaders of their day because the poor were being ignored, God’s word falling on deaf ears.

Some anger in the Bible is holy anger, and it’s hard to imagine what our lives would be like without it. God doesn’t expect us to passively swallow injustice.

But I suspect most of our anger is aimed not at tyrants or political despots but rather at people we know pretty well—family members, friends, people at work or church. Those we live with every day sometimes infuriate the heck out of us. The Bible doesn’t condemn this type of anger either. Paul says in Ephesians: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (4:26). In other words: you’re going to get mad. Go into your closet and cuss, but get over it.

It’s the festering anger that Jesus equates with murder in the Sermon on the Mount. The anger and hatred that last for days, months, even years. The anger we nurse, even enjoyably.

•••

In a nearby section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-45), Jesus invites disciples to pray for enemies. I used to think he invited us to do this primarily for the benefit of the enemy. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe the primary benefit is for the one who prays—to keep the anger we feel for another from doubling back and consuming us over time.

Jesus says something about prison at the end of this teaching about anger. And that’s the truth of it. Anger can become a jail.

Unless you let go, you’ll never get out.

Frank G. Honeycutt

Author of 10 books, Frank Honeycutt is an ELCA pastor living in Walhalla, S.C. His collection of fictional short stories, God’s Scorekeeper, will be released this fall by Cascade Books.

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