Tag Archives: Anger

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 16:32

Dog, Self-ControlProverbs 16:32
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
and he who rules his spirit than he who captures a city. (NASB)

Like a city that is broken into and without walls,
is a man who has no control over his spirit (Proverbs 25:28; NASB).

In these two proverbs a contrast is made between the one who rules their spirit and the one who does not. In both cases the image used is that of a city surrounded by its walls, a primary and enduring means of defence in the ancient world. Strong walls may not guarantee victory, but lack of walls or broken walls may well guarantee defeat. A city without walls was vulnerable to every passer-by. One need only remember the downfall of Jericho (Joshua 6) or Nehemiah’s tears to understand the importance of sound walls in good repair. As long as Jerusalem’s wall was broken down, the inhabitants there were in “great distress and reproach” (Nehemiah 1:3-4).

The message of wisdom, of course, is that one must “rule their spirit,” and yet this is easier said than done. Indeed, the first text suggests that it is more difficult to rule one’s spirit than to capture a city. It may be possible that a person of unrestrained anger might prove a ferocious warrior, perhaps even a resolute commander who can conquer cities. Yet better is one who rules his or her spirit.

English translations of 16:32 differ, many rendering “rule one’s spirit” in terms of anger, and so making the second part of the verse more explicitly parallel with the first part. So the NRSV translates: “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible captures the sense in a memorable manner for English readers: “Patience is better than power, and controlling one’s temper, than capturing a city.” Nevertheless, Roland Murphy’s suggestion that the word for spirit refers to a person’s appetites and passions perhaps allows us to extend the meaning of these texts beyond a narrow application to anger alone (Murphy, Proverbs (WBC), 194). Many passions and appetites vie for expression in the human heart, and not all of them good. Anger may be a prominent and suitable example, but others include pride, envy, greed, lust, sloth and gluttony—all of the classic deadly sins. Other emotions such as fear, guilt and shame might also be included. The wise person, it seems, will rule them all.

Taking our lead from the biblical example of anger we gain some hints into how this might be achieved. The text speaks of being “slow to anger.” Sometimes anger smoulders, sometimes it explodes, and sometimes it roars into flame after smouldering away for a long period. Being slow to anger suggests that one stops and “counts to ten” in the face of provocation, and that one keeps one’s regular temperature cool rather than heated, so that small things do not cause us to “boil over.” In other words, we practise restraint, keeping a sharp rein on our temper, considering other perspectives, possibilities and options. A wise person will maintain a “cool spirit,” seeking to subject the affections to reason (cf. Proverbs 17:27).

Another strategy for ruling one’s spirit is to practise the virtue that stands in opposition to the vice. Proverbs 19:11 is an example: “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.” To practise forgiveness is a glory whereas to flame into anger is foolish (cf. Proverbs 14:29). A third strategy is to recall the promise given to us by God and live toward that hope. In light of what is at stake, Jesus advocated a ruthless exercise of self-control in the face of sexual temptations and lust: “If your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).

Of course the problem is that I have only two hands and two eyes… And so in the end, we must pray. Self-control is, after all, a fruit of the Spirit’s work and activity in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23). So, too, Jesus counselled his disciples saying, “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). I am reminded of one of the sayings of the desert fathers:

They said of Sarah that for thirteen years she was fiercely attacked by the demon of lust. She never prayed that the battle should leave her, but she used to say only, “Lord, give me strength” (Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, 36).

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:20

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:20
… for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.

My treatment of verses 19-20 argued that James’ concern is primarily spiritual, that he is issuing once more a call to humble submission before God in the midst of trials. More needs to be said, however, lest we miss James’ evident concern with the state and conduct of the community to which he is writing. Even if our anger is directed toward God, often the more immediate object of our anger are those persons whom we believe are responsible for our hardship. Behind the immediate object of our anger stands God, the ultimate object of our anger. These two objects of anger are closely related. The angry person inevitably upsets the community, introducing dispute, conflict, judgement and jealousy, all of which are contrary to the righteousness of God. The story of Cain in Genesis 4:1-8 illustrates the dual nature of anger. Cain burned with fury against God but could reach only Abel. His brother then became the immediate object of his wrath, issuing ultimately in violence and murder. In the story God warns Cain saying, “Why are you angry? … Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Examination of the broader context of James indicates that perhaps within the community itself, some members were cursing others (3:9-10), that there were quarrels, fights and disputes among them (4:1), with some speaking evil of and judging others (4:11-12). McKnight (135-139) may be correct in his assertion that this is the primary issue at stake in the community, with some of the poorer and unjustly treated members of the community seeking to bring about justice for their own cause by striking out in anger against the rich who oppress them. For McKnight, this strife consisted at the very least in verbal assaults, but very possibly also led to physical violence between some of the members. That it may also have led to murder in the community (137-138), is to take James 4:2 too literally.

Many texts in the Hebrew wisdom tradition draw attention to the need for great carefulness with respect to speech (see, for example, Proverbs 12:13-14a, 17-19; 13:3; 18:21; cf. especially Sirach 5:11: “Be quick to hear but deliberate in answering”). The same is true with respect to anger (Proverbs 14:29; 16:32; 19:11; 22:24-25; Ecclesiastes 7:9). Some texts draw the two themes together:

Proverbs 15:1           
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Thus James’ admonition has ample precedent in the Old Testament. It is also the case that he would have learned the same lesson from Jesus. For example, Jesus’ teaching on the righteousness which surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees clearly warns his followers concerning the very real dangers of angry speech (Matthew 5:20-26). Human anger does not produce the kind of righteous character, behaviour or community that God desires. Some of James’ community may indeed be crying out for justice against those who mistreat them, but the way of anger, insult and violence will not establish divine righteousness (cf. James 3:18).


Scripture on Sunday – James 1:19-20

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:19-20
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (NRSV)

This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (NASB)

James addresses his “brothers and sisters” for the third time in this chapter (vv. 2, 16), and as “beloved” for the second time (v. 16). It is also the second time that he refers to his hearers “knowing” something, although the word here (iste) differs from that used in verse 3. The two translations above show that the word could be translated as an indicative (NASB) indicating something that James’ hearers already know, and so referring back to the truths just enumerated in verses 16-18. Or it could be understood as an imperative as in most English translations, and thus as a command to his hearers to know this particular truth which James will now go on to declare. The usual translation is to be preferred, although the NASB has the advantage of translating the tiny particle de (“but”). It is likely that the decision to translate the particle forces the change of translation in the first phrase.

What is it James wants his hearers to know? He begins with a brief aphorism that “everyone” (pas anthrōpos) “must be” (estō) “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (taxys eis to akousai, bradys eis to lalēsai, bradys eis orgēn). The aphorism itself plays on the metaphor of speed: quick—slow—slow. “Quick to listen” and “slow to speak” would provide a balanced and parallel saying. The addition of “slow to anger” slows the saying and hearer, emphasising James’ focus on speech and highlighting especially his main concern—angry speech, and, more to the point, human anger itself.

Thus, James’ main concern is the pithy point given in verse 20: human anger does not produce the righteousness of God (orgē gar andros dikaiosynēn theou ou katergazetai; note that this text follows the fifth edition of the UBS Greek New Testament, and so reads ou katergazetai instead of ouk ergazetai (fourth edition). See the discussion in Vlachos, 53-54). The NRSV reads “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” suggesting that at least some members of the community itself are angry. Although this is possible, it obscures the more specific thrust of the verse provided by the contrast between human anger and God’s righteousness. Further, katergazetai here, recalls its earlier use in verse 3, where the trial of our faith “produces” (katergazetai) endurance. If in the midst of trial, James’ hearers resort to anger instead of practising endurance, the result will not be the attainment of divine righteousness; they will not be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (verse 4). The phrase “God’s righteousness” (dikaiosyne theou) here thus carries an ethical rather than salvific sense. James is not saying that one’s anger does not bring a person into a saving relation with God, but that human anger does not bear the kind of righteous fruit that God desires or approves. James is concerned here, therefore, not with one’s standing before God, but with practical righteousness, the kind of life lived in accordance with that which is right and good in God’s sight.

On first glance these verses appear to be a stand-alone aphorism intended as practical parenesis and admonition, presaging the larger treatment on human speech and the power of the tongue in chapter 3. There is no doubt that speech is a major issue in James with 29 imperatives in the letter devoted to speech ethics (Vlachos, 52). It is not surprising, therefore, that pastors and preachers read the verse like this, using homely examples such as “God has given us two ears but only one mouth, obviously intending that we should listen twice as much as we should speak!”

Nevertheless, this reading disconnects the verses from what has gone before. It is, however, possible, and I think preferable, to read verses 19-20 as part of James’ ongoing argument. In times of trial and temptation believers are to stand firm in faith, rejoicing in God and praying for wisdom. They are not to accuse or blame God for their temptations for such temptations arise from their own lusts. Therefore God’s people would do well to be slow to speak such words and make such claims (cf. verse 13 “let no one say…”). Instead, believers are to be “quick to hear”—the Word of God. That this is James’ intent becomes clear in verses 21-25 where he goes on to instruct his listeners how they should hear. The primary meaning of this brief aphorism is, therefore, a renewed call for humble submission to God in the midst of trial. That it may also have wider application as a piece of relational and moral wisdom is apparent but secondary to this primary interpretation. James will, of course, develop his instruction on believers’ use of the tongue in interpersonal relations in chapter 3, but that is not the primary content of his exhortation here.