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“Anger and its Alternatives”

Proverbs 19:11 and others
Bob DeGray
July 20, 2003

Key Sentence

At every moment there is an alternative to the anger you are tempted to express.


I. Introduction: An Angry Man
II. Angry People and their Behavior
III. Alternatives to Anger
IV. Epilogue: The Source of Victory


I. Introduction: An Angry Man

        Who was the angriest person in the Bible? There are many candidates. Cain comes to mind. It takes a lot of anger to kill your brother. Jezebel certainly seemed to have a burr in her saddle, and king Herod showed no shortage of wrath. But the person I want to remind you of this morning is that angry man known as Saul, first king of Israel. Early in his reign Saul proved himself unfaithful and disobedient to God. But his anger didn’t dominate him until he met David, God’s next choice as king.

        David burst on the scene when he killed Goliath, the giant champion of the Philistines. You’d think this would endear him to King Saul, but it didn’t. 1 Samuel 18:6-12 When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. 7As they danced, they sang: "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands." 8Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. "They have credited David with tens of thousands," he thought, "but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?" 9From that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. 10The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully upon Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the harp, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand. 11He hurled it, saying to himself, "I'll pin David to the wall." But David eluded him twice. 12 Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had left Saul.

        Saul became very angry - he burned or was consumed with it. The Old Testament has several vivid words for anger. In this instance Saul’s anger is a fire that consumes. In many cases a word is used that indicates the flaring of the nostrils that is common in an angry person. Other words for anger literally mean a force that overwhelms, or a storm that rages. Anger is a strong, destructive emotion. But why did Saul become angry? The verses tell us that the chants of the women galled or embittered or displeased King Saul. In a sense this is simple jealousy. Saul began to keep an eye on David, out of jealousy or envy because the accolades he thought should come to him were being given to this young upstart.

        Another underlying emotion here, and often a powerful one, is certainly shame. Who should have gone out to fight the giant? Who should have played the man rather than cowering in his tent? Saul should - and he knows it. Another cause is fear. Verse 12 says ‘Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him.’ He saw David as a threat but recognized that the threat was really from God. So bitterness and envy, shame and fear - any of these can be a source of anger for you and me. Underneath all these is the true root of anger, which is self-centeredness, making my needs and desires the focal point of my life and my contentment.

        Saul displays selfish egotism and arrogance throughout his time as king, and it’s almost inevitable that the self-centered and prideful person becomes insecure and angry when crossed. One of the things we need to test when we become angry is whether selfishness is the cause. Am I angry because my use of time or energy has been derailed, or my expectations have been violated? Often I find I am.

        So anger, brought about by jealousy or shame or fear consumed Saul and he responded with violence - with two badly aimed throws of his spear. It happens again in chapter 19 and by chapter 20 David is staying away to avoid Saul’s wrath. Jonathan can’t quite believe his father is murderous but when, at the new moon feast, he pretends that David is in Bethlehem to attend a family sacrifice, 1 Samuel 20:30 Saul's anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, "You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don't I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? 31As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he must die!" 32"Why should he be put to death? What has he done?" Jonathan asked his father. 33But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him. Then Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David. 34Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger; on that second day of the month he did not eat, because he was grieved at his father's shameful treatment of David.

        Saul gets so angry he curses his own son. The translators soften the curse because it would be unpalatable in street language. Once again, the cause of Saul’s anger is shame and selfishness. He’s ashamed that his son is treating David better than he is, ashamed that he himself has not been found worthy of God’s blessing. So he gets angry, and in addition to his verbal abuse he once again gets violent. Notice that Jonathan is also angry - but his anger was different in several ways. First his anger is controlled: he doesn’t dishonor his father or God by sinful words or acts. Second, to a large extent his anger is righteous - he is angry that a wrong is being done. This is a legitimate kind of anger - in fact God’s anger is exactly of this sort. The problem we fall into that Jonathan avoided is having a sinful response to legitimate anger or using ‘righteous indignation’ as an excuse for selfish anger.

        Saul shows us how selfishness, revealed as fear and envy, shame and insecurity, leads to sinful anger, sinful words and acts. The book of Proverbs says a lot about angry people like Saul, and maybe like you and me – what they’re like and what they do. It also gives practical alternatives to anger. This morning we want to study and absorb those truths, because we don’t want to be like Saul. We want to recognize that at every moment there is an alternative to the anger we are tempted to express.

II. Angry People and their Behavior

        Let’s begin by looking at angry people and their behaviors in Proverbs. There are several classes of angry people talked about in this book. First, Proverbs 26:21 As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.

        Charcoal is the fuel for glowing coals and wood is the fuel for raging fires and anger is the fuel for strife. Being contentious or quarrelsome is what causes the fire and sin of strife. A contentious person is always saying ‘yea, but’, raising objections, disputing results or courses of action. You’ve known people like this, people for whom nothing is ever quite right and who are quite willing to say so. How about you? Do you find yourself constantly disagreeing with folks? Maybe you’re being contentious, the first kind of angry person we’ll identify in Proverbs.

        Second, Proverbs 29:22 An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins. The first word for anger in this verse is the one drawn from the visual image of flaring nostrils, an indication of rage. In bulls we recognize snorting as a sign of danger, and in people the same is often true. This kind of anger uses words to stir up dissension and hatred. This is the anger of gossip and rumor that spreads like cancer through a church or any organization. ‘Did you hear what so and so did to me? Can you believe it?’ The second word for anger, ‘hot tempered’ implies a person who is out of control, like Saul. He or she expresses anger by words which can tremendously hurt others, and often by physical violence, which even when it doesn’t injure expresses rage in the most demeaning way. You might say ‘that doesn’t happen here’ but you’d be wrong. There are people sitting here who have abused their loved ones verbally and physically. I don’t know who you are, but I’ve been around long enough to know you’re here. You probably hate what you’ve been doing. Keep listening, because there is hope for the angry person.

        Like all sins in Proverbs this sin of a flaming temper has consequences. Proverbs 19:19 A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again. An interesting verse: it not only teaches that there are natural and spiritual consequences to anger, even legal ones, but also teaches that at times wisdom lets those consequences happen. If you constantly cover for an angry person you won’t help them. But if you let them suffer the consequences, displaying ‘tough love’, there’s a possibility they can see the need to change. Sometimes you even have to deliberately impose those consequences, as in cases of church discipline.

        On the other hand, Proverbs warns against being a busybody who constantly intervenes in other people’s problems. Proverbs 26:17 Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own. You can picture this image: two people are involved in a loud argument on the street, and you as a publicly minded citizen intervene to calm them down, only to find that both of them, in the heat of anger, turn against you. That can even happen in a home. Proverbs says that it’s like taking a dog by the ears - which makes you very vulnerable to it’s mouth. By the way, that is not my new puppy - he could never look that fierce.

        Here’s another warning from Proverbs: even if you are not yourself hot-tempered, you can still fall into sin by provoking anger in those who are vulnerable. Think about this: if you knew someone with a drinking problem, you wouldn’t give him alcohol. If you knew someone who had problems with lust you wouldn’t take him to certain movies or clubs. Yet some people blatantly give angry people reasons for anger, provoking them to sin, making themselves the target. Proverbs 30:33 "As churning the milk produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife." So don’t stir anger up - don’t twist the nose of an angry person.

        There is one more kind of angry person I want to mention briefly. If I could avoid this, I would, but there are several verses here on the subject of the quarrelsome wife. Proverbs 27:15-16 A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping on a rainy day; 16restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand. This wife is contentious, raising objections and dissenting, sharp tempered and disagreeable. The effect of this kind of attitude is like Chinese water torture or the constant dripping of the rain. It wears you down, it erodes your joy and cheerfulness, and then your patience and your tolerance until you become desperate or dispirited. And yet, try as you might, Solomon says, you can’t change a quarrelsome personality; it’s like trying to hold back the wind or take hold of oil. In fact, the author of Proverbs seems to despair of a cure when he says, Proverbs 21:9 Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. He seems to imply that the answer is to retreat into yourself, your own space and to let her alone.

        Now here’s a place where I disagree with Proverbs. Just as I am certain that there is someone here who is hot-tempered and maybe even dangerous to be around - and yet there is hope for you - so also I’m certain that there is someone here who is quarrelsome, contentious, domineering in her home. You probably know who you are - you probably want to change. And if that’s true, if you’re willing to take responsibility for your own behavior, there is hope for you this morning. God can do what your family cannot, which is get hold of your heart to change it.

        So we’ve seen that Proverbs accurately describes several types of angry people and their behaviors. Solomon knows that many people are burdened by being hot-tempered, being quarrelsome, being like a fire that rages out of control. But there is hope of quenching those flames. Proverbs gives hope by showing us alternatives to anger, other behaviors that we can choose when tempted to anger. The rest of Scripture reinforces that hope through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

III. Alternatives to Anger

        Let’s look at some practical alternatives to anger, beginning with Proverbs 12:16 A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult. We didn’t see the word ‘fool’ in any of the verses we looked at so far, but it’s actually a common name for an angry person. Proverbs has many words for fool - this is the one that means moral deficiency and sinfulness rather than ignorance or mental incapacity. But this fool is controlled by anger. He always expresses it at once.

        The alternative is to be a prudent person who overlooks an insult. The word prudent can mean sensible or even crafty, but under the circumstances what it really means is being a person who stops and thinks before taking action, who counts to ten, who takes a deep breath, who responds rather than reacting. Such a person will know that it is often folly to answer an insult - you only get embroiled in a war of insults. So he chooses to overlook unjust accusations. One of the alternatives to being an angry fool is to be prudent, thinking before you act, overlooking provocation.

        Similarly, Proverbs 29:11 A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control. Different word for fool: this one is dull, ignorant and especially, unwise, so he does not hold back anger but allows it to burst forth. A wise person, on the other hand, restrains himself, so that the perils of anger cannot multiply. Here are clear alternatives to being an angry fool: being prudent and wise. The prudent and wise person steps back from the situation and restrains the anger they are tempted to express. You see this in miniature in every football game. Players and coaches always get mad at the referees because of some call they don’t agree with. As long as that anger is controlled, nothing bad happens. But if the player gives vent to his anger, by shouting in the ref’s face or throwing something or hitting the ref, they’re out of there. It’s what we’ve seen all along in Proverbs - negative acts have negative consequences. Anger, expressed, gets you in trouble.

        Prudent people, wise people stop and think. They overlook provocation. And often they walk away from potential conflict. Proverbs 17:14 Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. The author of Proverbs says the devastating effects of anger are like breaching a dam. If you’ve ever read accounts or seen pictures of a dam that has broken you know that the wall of water sweeps everything from its path. We tend to think of dams as modern, but Solomon knew all about this. So, rather than breach the dam, he counsels us to turn away from sinful anger. Does this mean that the issues that have created conflict are never to be talked about, always to be repressed? No. But find someplace other than the base of the dam to do it. If it’s threatening to break, the thing for both of you to do is move away, and get to a new place where you can safely release the flow. Difficult issues need to be discussed in sorrow rather than in anger.

        One of the most helpful verses in Proverbs toward this goal is one we’ll focus on next week. Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Prudent people stop and think - that helps diffuse much anger. Then, after thought, they answer quietly and gently, humbly and honestly. This kind of quiet answer further diffuses conflict. It’s easy to be angry at an angry person, but hard to be mad at somebody who is not mad at you. I’ve had several times in counseling where someone got mad at me for telling the truth. In that situation a quiet insistence on truth is much more effective than mirroring a person’s anger.

        Proverbs is teaching us that there are alternatives to the angry person we don’t want to be. The kind of person we want to be is one who has learned to be prudent and wise, learned to count to ten, drop a subject, overlook a potential conflict. They have learned the effectiveness of quiet and gentle words. The New Testament, of course, agrees. I was talking with someone who has struggled in the past with anger, and this person said one of the key verses that helped bring about real change was James 1:19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. From a spiritual point of view, anger is ineffective - sinful anger destroys relationships and cannot bring about positive change.

        Proverbs uses one word over and over to summarize the practical goal of these alternative behaviors. The word is patience. In Proverbs the opposite of an angry person is a patient person. Proverbs 14:29-30 A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly. 30A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. Notice the two people in verse 29: the patient person and the quick tempered person. The phrase translated patient is literally ‘slow to anger’. That’s what God is, and he wants us to understand who he is, and what he is like so that we can be like him. That was the purpose of our worship this morning - to show us a God who is slow to anger. The person who fails to imitate this quality of the Father is foolish - it’s the foolishness of moral deficiency and sin. Verse 30 gives a parallel perspective on this. The slow-to-anger person has a heart of peace - at peace with God and with others. The quick-to-anger person struggles with envy, and probably also bitterness, jealousy, insecurity and all the other things Saul struggled with. So if you want to have a patient heart, cultivate a peaceful heart. If you want an angry heart, allow bitterness and anxiety and distrust to grow there.

        Proverbs calls us to be patient. Proverbs 15:18 A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel. The person who is slow to anger, gentle in his or her words, prudent and wise in behavior will not only not get angry, but by gentle words and carefully chosen silences help others to avoid anger. Proverbs 16:32 Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city. Here Proverbs is comparing virtues. There is, in a spiritual sense more honor and glory for a person who is patient than for one who is a conqueror. There is more true valor and courage in the person who controls his temper than in the person who wins a battle. In the men’s group we’ve studied the book ‘Wild at Heart’. One of the author’s favorite characters is William of Wallace, as depicted in the movie Braveheart. But Proverbs tells us that if you really want to be a man worthy of the name you’ll develop self control. This isn’t weakness - it’s strength, the strength to build up, not destroy - Godly strength, rather than human strength.

        All of this is summed up in our key verse for this morning, Proverbs 19:11 A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense. The alternate behavior mentioned here is one that we’ve touched on before - overlooking an offense. Those who were here when we studied the Peacemaker materials will realize that overlooking is not always the right answer. But often it is, especially when I know that I struggle with anger. I have to be suspicious that what I’m taking as an offense is really an innocent act which my selfishness reacts against: someone is late, something breaks, someone has an accident. Those aren’t intended offenses, and therefore shouldn’t be the cause of anger, but should be graciously dealt with. Even things that are failings and sins by others can be overlooked in some cases and forgiven in all cases. The implication is that selfish anger is petty and demeaning, whereas patience and forgiveness are honorable and glorious.

        The other thing clarified by our key verse is we learn this patience through wisdom. As we get to know more about God and his ways, about the depth of his love and the way we can trust him fully, this understanding or wisdom will lead our hearts to peace, which will lead to patience which replaces insecurity and anger. Remember, the angry person, in Proverbs, is a fool. The slow to anger person is wise.

IV. Epilogue: The Source of Victory

        So we’ve seen the angry person and his behavior: he’s hot-tempered, she’s contentious, he’s a fool. We’ve also seen alternatives: becoming a person who is prudent and wise, who knows to stop and think, to walk away from a fight, to speak a gentle word, and who has cultivated patience. We all know which of these two people we want to be. But many of you will say ‘I can’t do it! I’ve tried. I’ve tried to control my temper and I can’t. I don’t want to be this way, I just am.’ You know what? You’re right for you about your anger. You’re right for someone over here, only it’s in some other area of sin. You’re right for me in too many areas of my life. ‘I can’t do it.’ But that’s the first step on the road to change. There is hope for the person who seeks to change not by their power but by entire dependence on God.

        1st Peter, for example, teaches us to find hope in Christ’s example. 1 Peter 2:20-23 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22"He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. Christ, provoked beyond anything we can imagine, and with the power to devastate his opponents, entrusted himself to God. This is his example. Hebrews tells us that we are to follow in his steps, fixing our eyes on Him, finding our hope in Him.

        1st Peter goes on to say that change is found in Christ’s work of redemption. I Peter 2:24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you are healed. 25For you were like sheep going astray, but you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

        The apostle Paul tells us that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creature. The old has gone, the new has come. If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ, the old sinful nature which could not help sinning is no longer the boss. You have the power to die to sin, to put off your old self, which is controlled by its deceitful desires and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

        There is hope in Christ’s example, there is hope in his work of redemption, and finally, most importantly, there is hope in Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit. God says in the Old Testament that “it’s not by might, not by power but by my Spirit’” that you find victory. When we put our trust in Jesus and depend entirely on his Holy Spirit who is powerfully at work in us, we begin to change in our areas of characteristic sin. The New Testament makes this wonderfully clear for the very subject at hand, anger. Listen to Galatians 5:19-21 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. Several of acts of the sinful nature are sins of anger. The hot tempered person expresses anger in fits of rage. The contentious person expresses it in discord and dissension.

        But Jesus redeems you from the sinful nature and gives you a new spiritual nature by giving you God the Holy Spirit to dwell in you and to give you a real choice between sin and righteousness. Paul says that the mind set on the sinful nature is death, but the mind set or focused on what the Spirit wants is life and peace. We call the Spirit’s work in our lives ‘the fruit of the Spirit.’ As we choose dependence on him he supplies exactly what we need to change the angry person. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, which we’ve said is foundational to controlling anger, patience, which we’ve said is the practical alternative to anger, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, which is the way we want to be both verbally and physically, and self-control, which is what we think we lack when we say ‘I just can’t do it.’ It’s the Holy Spirit, working through our daily decision to depend on him who supplies the alternative to anger. There is hope for you in dependance on Christ’s Spirit, hope for you because of his work of redemption, hope for you, seen in his example. At every moment, through him, there is an alternative to the anger you are tempted to express.