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Part 3: CONTROL YOUR TEMPER

James 1:19-27

I played in a golf tournament several years back with about 40 other men and their friends from the church where I was serving at that time.  I was grouped with three other men for this scramble, two of whom I didn’t know.  One of the two men was an excellent golfer who surprisingly had trouble controlling his temper.  I say surprisingly not because there wasn’t any pressure, there was a little of that, but surprisingly because the man seemed to be so calm and controlled on the outside.  Even when he started to play poorly there was no visible demonstration of anger.  But one of the other golfers from our church told me before we teed of that day, “David, watch out.  We call that guy the volcano.  When he starts playing poorly it builds up in him until he eventually erupts, and you’re liable to hear some choice words that you haven’t heard in quite a while!”

Well after making a couple of bogeys this golfer missed a fairly easy putt, and all of a sudden this deceivingly calm man just exploded with profanity that you could probably hear 150 yards away.  Right in front of all the other church people, he just blew up!  And once the frustration was vented, he went on calmly to the next hole.

You know, a lot of people have trouble controlling their temper.  Now some of you in this room this morning are not going to be able to relate to this message because you don’t have this problem.  You’re very laid back in temperament and lifestyle and you’re always puzzled when people get so angry.  But there are others of you who, just like me, have to battle temper quite frequently in your life.

This lack of control in the area of our temper is evident in sports, where fans curse and sometimes throw objects, and where players get into brawls.  It’s evident in business, where irate laborers strike and yell obscenities at the scabs.  We see it when angry owners threaten, and when fired employees come back into their place of business with guns and kill people.  The loss of temper is evident on our highways, where drivers lay on the horn and exchange gestures and cut in front of each other in traffic.  And many a church split is the direct result of hasty words and short tempers.

Time magazine carried an article recently about citizen outrage against crime in Chicago.  The article said: “People in the streets are arming themselves and taking the law into their own hands, because they are both afraid and angry.”  Stephen Colbert said in response to that article, “The crime situation in Chicago is now so bad that if you want to see a Jehovah’s Witness you have to go to their house!”

But the loss of temper is most apparent in our homes.  A teenager bolts from the table, storms up to his room, slams the door, locks it, turns the stereo up as loud as he can, and will not communicate.  A husband gets angry and curses or hits his wife, gets into his car and squeals out of the driveway, endangering the lives of anybody in his path.  A parent explodes and physically abuses a child.  You see, some people are able to mask their temper in public, but when they get behind the protective walls of the home, they’re a volcano just ready to erupt.  And there may be family members gathered in this battle this very day who are inwardly pleading that God would speak to you to soften your spirit so that they don’t have to be intimidated by your temper anymore.

Well in James chapter 1, beginning with verse 19, we have a passage that underscores that Christian people are expected to control their temper. 

In verse 18 of this chapter James said that “[God] chose to give us [new] birth through the word of truth.”  But now that we’ve been born again, we’re expected to grow up.  Now that we’re Christians we are to behave as Jesus did.  Uncontrolled anger has no place in the life of the Christian.  And if we’re going to behave as Christians ought, then we need to understand and control our tempers.  So, let’s look at this passage together this morning and see what practical advice James has to share with us.

I. A WORD OF CAUTION.

I want you to notice, first of all, that James begins with a word of caution.

He says in verse 19, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” 

Now this is a caution, but it’s not a prohibition.  It’s not always wrong to be angry.  Some anger is normal.

For instance, a mother may experience anger when her rowdy children scribble on the wall after she’s had a hectic day.  That’s the anger of extreme fatigue.  An athlete may experience anger when he or she has an off night.  That’s the anger of extreme frustration.  A young man may experience anger when he’s jilted by his fiancée.  That’s the anger of extreme rejection.  A father would certainly get angry if someone tried to kidnap or harm his child.  That’s the anger of extreme injustice.  And it would be abnormal not to get angry under those circumstances.

But the crucial issue is, how do we handle that anger?  There is such a thing as righteous indignation—getting angry at the right things, at the right time, in the right way.  The Bible frequently speaks of God’s wrath being kindled against the wickedness of this world.  Jesus got angry about the abuses in the temple and He whipped the temple into shape.  So there are times that we need to get angry at the sins of our world that threaten the well-being of people.

Christian author Franky Schaeffer has written a book entitled A Time for Anger: The Myth of Neutrality.  And there’s a need for righteous indignation about pornography, drugs, Satan worship, spouse abuse, alcoholism.  In fact, a number of years ago a group of women became so angry about drunk drivers killing their children that they formed a group called MADDMother’s Against Drunk Driving.  And their righteous indignation over the court’s leniency with DUI offenders has gone a long way toward increasing the penalties handed down to convicted drunk drivers.  So you see, there is an anger that reflects righteousness.

We talk about tempering steel.  It’s the temper that helps give steel its strength.  And the person who can’t get angry at sin doesn’t have much strength to fight.  That’s why Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry but do not sin…” (ESV).  And James cautions us here, “…be slow to anger.”  Don’t get angry at the slightest provocation, instead learn to go with the flow in the little things.  And don’t get angry often.  If you are blowing your stack every day that’s a sign of immaturity, and you’re also endangering your health.  One doctor suggests that for every burst of temper you have you can subtract one week from your life expectancy!  So some of us aren’t going to live very long!

And don’t lose control of your temper.  While there is some anger that’s normal, when anger causes a loss of self-control then it’s sinful.  What is the earliest recorded instance of anger that we have in the Bible?  (Pause)  That’s right.  The first example of anger in the Bible was Cain getting so furious with his brother, Abel, that he killed him.  And any time that anger seeks to inflict harm on another person it’s sinful, no matter how righteously motivated.

When Jesus cleansed the temple, He didn’t lose his temper.  He did overturn the money tables, and He released the animals, and He took a whip and drove out the merchants, but it wasn’t because He lost control.  A careful reading of that text reveals that He went into the temple the night before and he observed everything that was going on.  So He was slow to wrath.  His anger was a calculated and well thought out course of action. 

Ecclesiastes 7:9 says, “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.”  

So maybe it will help us be cautious of anger if we just step back and analyze it for a minute.

Psychologists have done in-depth studies in the area of anger.  And they tell us that there are five levels of anger, each one growing more serious as the anger intensifies.

To begin with, there is irritation—an uneasiness brought about by an unpleasant disturbance.  It may be as mild as a traffic jam on the expressway, or some little child kicking the back of the pew in front of you, and you’re irritated.

This leads to what they have called indignation—which is a more intense level of anger.  This is a reaction to something that is unfair or unreasonable.  It can be expressed in violence, but usually it’s just expressed verbally.  A girl discovers that her boyfriend is cheating on her, and in her indignation, she lets him know about it in no uncertain terms.  A basketball coach is indignant over an unreasonable call by an official, so he grabs a chair and throws it across the floor.

The third level of anger is wrath—wrath which the psychologists say never goes unexpressed.  When anger reaches this level, you have a strong desire to avenge.  And the Bible says that one day God is going to express His wrath on evildoers. 

Then wrath, which goes uncontrolled, moves into the area of fury.  That’s the fourth level of anger.  Fury suggests immediate violence.  It may include a momentary loss of control or sanity.  King Saul became furious that the shepherd boy David was a threat to his throne.  And Saul’s son, Jonathan, had a strange friendship with David.  And Saul became so furious that he lost control and, in a moment of insanity, threw a spear and tried to kill David.  In fact, he tried to kill his own son Jonathan by throwing a spear, all because of fury. 

Proverbs 27:4 says, “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming…”

But the worst stage of anger is rage.  Rage can so overcome a person that acts of brutal violence are committed without any conscious awareness.  When given to rage, a person can actually act out murder and not even be aware that they’re doing it because they’ve allowed anger to so boil within them that they have a psychological “blackout.”

When a man by the name of Joseph Wesbecker went into his former place of employment, Standard Gravure, with an automatic weapon, he didn’t just lose his temper, he was full of rage.  He killed 9 co-workers and injured 11 others, none of whom had harmed him at all.  But his anger had boiled within for some time and in a fit of rage he committed violence, without even a conscious awareness of what he was doing according to psychiatrists.

No wonder James cautions, “You be slow to anger.”  Because anger is such a potentially hazardous emotion. 

II. THE REASON FOR OUR CONCERN.

Well the reason for our concern is found in verse 20, where James says, “…for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”  

You see, most of us are not going to get a gun and try to kill another human being.  But this passage does suggest several negative by-products of uncontrolled anger.

First, it dulls our hearing. 

James says in verse 19, “Everyone should be quick to listen … slow to become angry.” 

But when you are quick to become angry, you are slow to listen.  A mother is quick to listen to the cry of her infant.  Even if her baby is in a nursery with a number of other babies, she recognizes the cry of her own because she cares, she’s a keen listener.  And we’re to be keen listeners to the Word of God.  Jesus said, “If you have ears to hear, then you hear!”  But anger can make us hard of hearing.  It dulls our spiritual awareness.

Haven’t you seen couples so angry at each other that they’re shouting and screaming, and neither is hearing what the other is saying?  And people can get so angry at God, because of what they feel are injustices in their life, that they no longer hear what God is trying to say to them.  Media Mogul Ted Turner made the comment, “Christianity is for losers and the 10 Commandments are obsolete.”  Now that sounds like a rather irrational statement by a man who is fairly intelligent.  But I’ve heard that Ted Turner’s sister, years ago, went through a horrible illness and she died.  And perhaps he became so bitter through that experience that he no longer listens to the voice of God. 

And there are people who get so angry about injustices and unanswered prayers in their life, that they go to church but they don’t hear the Word.  Their ears are clogged up.

Uncontrolled anger also loosens our tongues. 

James says, “…be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”  But when you’re quick to become angry you’re also quick to speak. 

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

Somebody said, “When you get angry, count to 10 before you speak because you can think of a worse insult to say then.”  But that’s not quite the reason.  When we lose our temper, we often say nasty things and we tend to exaggerate the problem in a way that we would never do if we maintained control.  And later on we look back and feel sheepish, and we have to apologize for the dumb things that we said.

King David was indignant when a man named Nabal wouldn’t give his soldiers a meal.  So David said, “Mount up on your horses men and grab your sword.  May God deal with me severely if by morning I leave alive one person in Nabal’s house!” (see 1 Samuel 25.)  He was so mad.  But Nabal’s wife, Abigail, met David along the way and sweet-talked him into not killing one person at all.  And the next day David’s angry vow seemed so foolish. 

Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”  

When we lose our temper it also weakens our will.  It facilitates immorality. 

Verse 21 of James 1 says, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth…” 

When you get angry you are vulnerable to all kinds of immoral temptations—violence, drunkenness, affairs, careless driving, profanity, blasphemy. 

Proverbs 14:17 says, “A quick-tempered man does foolish things…” 

Baseball fans will remember a number of years ago when then Cincinnati Reds manager Lou Piniella lost his temper over a call at second base.  The media replayed his actions on the air over and over again.  He stormed out of the dugout and was so angry at the umpire that he yanked second base out of its socket and threw it out into center field.  Then he marched out to where he’d thrown it and he kicked it several times!  He looked like a little two-year-old boy throwing a temper-tantrum.

Now what happened?  What good did it do?  Did the umpire say, “O Lou, I’m so sorry!  I didn’t know I was going to make you so mad.  Please forgive me.  We’ll just call him safe”?  No way.  Anger doesn’t profit anything.  Instead, Piniella was thrown out of the game and eventually fined thousands of dollars for his behavior. 

“A quick-tempered man does foolish things,” Solomon said.

When Moses was 40 years old, he witnessed an Egyptian task master abusing a Hebrew slave.  And that abuse of one of his fellow men so angered Moses that he looked this way, then that way, and seeing no one else around he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.  Now Moses’ anger was justified, but his behavior wasn’t.  He was out of control.  And that loss of temper resulted in Moses eventually being assigned to lonely wilderness duty for 40 years, tending sheep until he was ready for service. 

Proverbs 30:33 says, “For as churning the milk produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife.” 

 

III. THE MEANS OF CONTROLLING OUR TEMPER. 

Now this passage in James suggests to me a means of controlling our temper.

I want you to see four suggestions for learning to keep our tempers under control.

First, swallow your pride—don’t be defensive. 

Verse 21 says, “…humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” 

Becoming a Christian begins with humility, saying, “My wealth can’t save me.  My intelligence can’t save me.  My power can’t forgive my sins.  No, I can only be forgiven by humbly coming to Jesus Christ.”  And Jesus said that unless you humble yourself and become like a little child, you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven.  But humility should be a trait all through the Christian life as we mature.  Overcoming anger begins with humility because most anger occurs when our pride has been wounded, when our self-esteem has been undermined.

Have you ever been on the expressway passing a car in the fast lane, going maybe 65 or 66, and a truck comes down over the hill about 80 mph and gets right on your bumper, trying to get you to hurry up and get around the other car?  Now when that happens to me it makes me angry!  I don’t like that trucker thinking that just because his rig is 20 times heavier than my car that he can push me around.  And I’m really tempted to just tap on the brake a little bit to make him get into trouble.  Now that’s stupid!  But a lot of times when we get angry it’s because our pride has been wounded.  Somebody is trying to intimidate us, somebody has cut down our self-esteem, somebody has been sarcastic, and we want to retaliate because of wounded pride.

Well the way to overcome anger is to swallow your pride and develop a humble, tolerant spirit.  What does it matter if somebody intimidates you, or at least thinks they do?  What does it matter if somebody thinks they’ve pulled a fast one on you?  It’s a wise mature Christian who is able to divert trouble with a simple humility. 

Proverbs 15, verse 1, says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  

Just be gentle, be humble.

John Wesley had a temper and a sarcastic tongue.  And one day he met an antagonist on a one-way bridge.  They met in the middle coming from opposite directions, and they stopped, both waiting for the other to back up.  Finally, the man coming in the other direction yelled, “I never back up for an idiot!”  And Wesley mumbled, “Well, I always do!,” and he backed his horses off the bridge. 

“A gentle answer turns away wrath…” (Proverbs 15:1).

Proverbs 17:14 says, “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.” 

Just drop it!  A humble spirit can go a long way toward defusing anger.  Be willing to just ignore disagreements.  You don’t have to have the last word.  If somebody is sarcastic to you, you don’t have to respond in kind.  Instead just go on. 

“Mockers stir up a city, but wise men turn away anger,” Solomon said (Proverbs 29:8). 

So first, be humble—don’t be so defensive.

Secondly, obey the word—don’t just listen to it. 

Verse 22 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.” 

Now that word for listen is the word from which we get the word “audit.”  You can go to college and you can audit a class, which means you have no responsibility.  You go to class if you “want” to, you don’t have to do the homework, you don’t have to take the test, you don’t have to worry about grades, you simply go in and listen.

And there are a people who actually audit church.  They just go in and listen whenever they “feel” like it and take in only what pleases them.  But they have no accountability because, after all, they’re not members.  And there are some church members who think that they have satisfied God because they’ve gone to church and heard a sermon.  But if they never transfer what they hear into practical Christian living, James says, “You are self-deluded.  You’re deceiving yourselves.”

Warren Wiersbe talks about people who “mark their Bible, but their Bible never marks them!”  Somehow, they never get the big picture that Christianity is not just listening and believing, it’s becoming like Jesus Christ.  It does absolutely no good for you to come to church and hear a sermon about how you ought to control your temper if, when you get in the parking lot and get in your car, you lose your temper because someone stopped you to talk for a while and now you’re not going to beat the Presbyterians to the Family Table for a cup of coffee!  It doesn’t do you a lick of good to come to church and hear a lesson about controlling your temper if, when you get home in just a little bit, you lose your temper and shout and scream at your kids.

Nike has a slogan which says, “Just Do It!”  And James says to us, “Don’t just listen to the word, but do what it says!” (v. 22).  He says a man who doesn’t do it is like a man who looks in the mirror and says, “I’m dirty,” but he still doesn’t wash his face (v. 23-24).  But the man who looks intently into God’s Word, and then makes the necessary corrections, will be blessed when he does what it says (v. 25).

If you have a hot temper and you’ve been hurting a lot of people, it’s time to change.  Jesus Christ wants to bring about a radical transformation in your life.  He wants to bring about self-control.  He wants you to quit throwing temper-tantrums like a little baby.  He’s not satisfied with your sham of going to church and putting up a good front, He wants you to be mellowed out.  He wants you to learn to be easy and fun to live with.  And maybe you’re a person today who needs to look into the mirror of God’s Word and honestly say, “I look like a jerk when I lose my temper.  I’m going to clean up my act.  I’m going to repent and change.  By the power of God, I’m going to do it!”

John and his brother, James, were called what?  (Pause)  They weren’t named “sons of thunder” for no reason.  They were nicknamed “sons of thunder” because of their angry tempers.  They once got so angry at some Samaritans that rejected Jesus that they said, “Lord, let’s just call down fire from heaven and consume them!”  But after they had been with Jesus for a long time, they became known as apostles of love.

So don’t just listen to the Word, but let it really take root and make a difference in your life.

Thirdly, restrain your tongue—don’t verbalize your angry feelings immediately. 

Look at verse 26: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”

Now there’s an important distinction here between restraining your tongue and repressing anger.  Repressed anger festers inside until it eventually explodes.  And the Bible says we’re not to let any root of bitterness grow in us.  We’re told not to let the sun go down on our wrath.  And I know Christian people who have repressed anger, and they smile on the outside, but all of a sudden they erupt like a volcano and there’s instant divorce, or there’s instant alienation.

But while anger shouldn’t be repressed, there is a need for restraining the tongue.  Proverbs 16:23 says, “A wise man’s heart guides his mouth, and his lips promote instruction.”  And there is great wisdom in learning just to hold your tongue for a while.

I’ve found out that if I express my anger immediately, I invariably exaggerate the problem and I later regret what I say.  So I know that my emotions fluctuate, and if I just restrain my tongue for a while I feel differently about it later and have it in a better perspective.

Did you hear about the woman who had a terrible day at the office?  She came home, and the first two hours at home with her husband were just horrible.  She was losing her temper and lashing out at him, generally making life miserable.  And finally, he said, “Honey, let’s admit it, things aren’t going well.  I’m going to go back outside and come back in again, then let’s start all over.”  So he went outside, closed the door, came back in, and said, “Hi honey, I’m home!”  And she said, “Where have you been?!  You’re two hours late, it’s already 8:00 p.m.!”

You know that it takes a while for emotions to calm down.  So there’s wisdom in this instruction to learn to hold your tongue.

And then the final suggestion is to learn to express compassion for the needy—don’t carelessly vent your hostility. 

Now verse 27 is not directly related to anger, but it does convey a concept that I think is helpful for us.  It says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

You see, the world knows that you can’t repress anger, and they think that there’s some way you can ventilate it.  For example, you might be told to get a punching bag and just hit it, or to go jogging and release your energy.  Some therapists will tell you to imagine the individual with whom you are angry sitting in a chair across from you, and then express to that chair everything you feel.  Others will tell you to write down all your bitter feelings in a letter and then burn it up.  I heard a preacher once say that he had some bad elders, so he would write their names on golf balls and then just go out and smack those balls as hard as he could!

But the Biblical solution to long term anger is to express kindness to those who are in need.  You know that passage in Romans 12 that says, “Do not seek revenge, my friends…  ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 19, 20-21). 

Instead of looking for some superficial way to ventilate your anger against the person who has wronged you, express kindness to them.  Now that’s difficult, but it’s amazing how it releases your hostility.

Richard Duhon told of a sheep farmer whose neighbor’s dog kept killing his lambs.  He begged the neighbor to tie up his dog, but the neighbor stubbornly refused to do so.  Well naturally that infuriated the shepherd.  But instead of starting a range war he gave one of the little lambs as a pet to the neighbor’s children.  And the next day the vicious dog was penned up. 

Proverbs 21:14 reads, “A gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath.”

Again, in verse 21 James speaks of humbly accepting the word which can save you.  The question is, will we receive the word that he has for us today?  God will wash away all of our angry sins by the blood of Christ.  And He will empower us by His Holy Spirit so that we can mature and learn to behave as Jesus did—not with anger, but with grace.

David Hall
First Church of Christ
July 12, 2020