The apostles’ hearts were filled with rage. The Master was heading toward Jerusalem, and He had sent messengers on ahead to secure lodging for Himself and His apostles. Some of the messengers had entered a town of the Samaritans, but when the Samaritan villagers learned that Jesus was making for Jerusalem, they abruptly refused them all hospitality, despite the age-old and sacred Middle Eastern obligation to offer hospitality to strangers. If Jesus were heading to Jerusalem, the “Vacancy” sign out front was quickly turned to read “No Vacancy”—at least for them. It was a spectacular slight, and a terrible insult.
The apostles then remembered how Elijah was also insulted by those who refused to acknowledge that he was a true prophet (2 Kings 1:9f). The king had sent fifty soldiers to arrest him, and they haughtily demanded that the man of God, the prophet, come down to go with them. “If I am a man of God,” Elijah replied, “then let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” He was a true prophet, of course, and God responded by sending lightning to strike down the arresting soldiers. If God would avenge His prophet when a king refused to acknowledge the prophet’s dignity, surely, the apostles reasoned, God would also send down fire from heaven to avenge His Messiah when others (hateful Samaritans, no less!) refused to acknowledge Him. “Lord,” they asked hopefully, “do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” The Lord rebuffed the suggestion, and rebuked His would-be defenders. In Jerusalem He would receive worse treatment than that. They walked on to another village (Luke 9:51f). In one MS recension, the Lord responds to the apostles by saying, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of”—that is, they did not know what was in their own hearts. They might have imagined that they were being motivated by godly and righteous indignation, but in reality they were filled with unrighteous anger.
Anger is not a happy sin. Let’s be honest—some sins feel good while we are indulging in them. When we are indulging in the sin of gluttony, for example, and eating an entire tub of Haagen-Dazs, it feels great. When later on our conscience smites us (or when we step on the bathroom scales the next day, and it smites us), it doesn’t feel so great, but while we are indulging in this sin, it feels good. The sin of anger is not like this. After we have given in to road rage and have screamed ourselves hoarse, we never turn to the person sitting in the car beside us and say, “That felt great! I feel so much happier now!” Instead, the sin of anger tears little pieces off our soul and leaves us in tatters. Anger is not a happy sin.
But like all sin, anger or rage represents a perversion of something fundamentally good and God-given. Take the example of gluttony again: God made us in such a way that we need to eat to live, and so we feel pleasure in satisfying our hunger. The pleasure of eating is good; the sin consists of misusing this pleasure. Similarly, God made us capable of sudden bursts of inner psychic energy—energy we need to respond when danger threatens. In our fallen world, we feel such inner energy when faced not only with danger, but with evil, and we are righteously angry when faced with moral atrocity. If someone, for example, were told of the beheadings of ISIS and replied, “Oh well…no one’s perfect”, one would not applaud that person for their calm and unruffled spirit, but wonder where they misplaced their moral compass. It is godly and right to feel righteous indignation at evil. It was out of such righteous indignation that Christ denounced the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees, and cleansed the Temple.
The big question before us therefore is this: how can we know whether the anger we feel at any given time is righteous indignation or unrighteous rage? One clue comes from the measure of anger we feel. If someone steals our parking space out from under us, we should feel annoyance and irritation. But if we are consumed with fury and scream and turn the air blue with vituperation, that is not righteous indignation. That is sin, for our response is out of all proportion to the offence. Another clue comes from how personal is the indignation we feel. If someone cut off another person in traffic and “flipped him the bird”, we might feel some minor indignation at the act, and intone to ourselves, “That wasn’t very nice.” But if the same person did the same thing to us and we felt more than minor indignation and began to rant and scream and lean on the horn, that also is sin. If the offence draws a hotter response when directed at us than at others, we know we have a problem. We can know what manner of spirit we are of.
So then, when we do find ourselves angry and some real or imagined offence, what are we to do? I suggest three things.
First, complain to God. That is, before doing anything else, pray and pour out your heart to Him, relating all the terrible details of the perceived injustice, and only then go on to tell others. Usually when we feel aggrieved the first person we tell is not God, but Facebook. Complaining about injustices and others’ sins on social media is not always wrong (though I have never seen it bear fruit even once), but it should not be our first response. First tell God all about it, and only after that consider telling someone else.
Secondly, pray for the offender. Praying for the offender does not entail pretending that the offender did not offend, or pretending that you feel all warm and cuddly about the offence. It simply means asking God to bless the offender with the same blessing which you want for yourself—including the blessing of recognizing one’s sins and knowing when to repent. If God grants the offender such a blessing, he may end up repenting of the offence and even apologizing, but of course that remains outside our control. Our task is simply to pray and leave it all with God. I have found that in such times it helps to picture the offender as a young child. We were all young children once, and I sometimes fancy that it how God continues to see us—as children who have grown old and weary, children who have accumulated sorrows and pains and are behaving badly. Remembering that the offender was once a child may help us as we pray for them.
Finally, leave room for the vengeance of God. “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,” says the Lord (Hebrews 10:30). It is hard to forgive and leave anger to one side if we think that the offender is getting away with something, but the truth is that nobody will ever get away with anything. Every offence will be fully and adequately dealt with by God at the Last Judgment, and all sins left unrepented of will find just rebuke from God. Sadly, that includes our sins as well. I would be happy if nobody got away with anything, except of course me, but everyone will one day stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ and give an account, and there will be no exceptions. All the more reason to repent and forgive now.
The apostles found as they journeyed through Samaria to Jerusalem that the Samaritans were hard to bear. As we journey to the Kingdom, we also find plenty of people hard to bear, and we are tempted by the sin of anger. It will make for a happier journey if we leave such wrath alone, and walk with the Lord in peace.