Thoughts on Anger and Violence

On the subject of the invention and use of gunpowder in warfare, historian Edward Gibbon observed the following: “If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.”*

We see how quickly violence entered the world of man, and how promptly it immersed mankind – a few chapters in the divine account between the moment the Cain rose up against his brother Abel in the field and slew him (Genesis 4 v 8), to the time when God made the solemn observation: “The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is full of violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Genesis 6 v 13). History repeats itself: a battle for the city of Aleppo in Syria which has lasted for four years has claimed over 400,000 lives. 600 years ago, the conqueror Timur put the same unfortunate city to the sword, massacred its inhabitants with the exception of a few artisans whom he sent captive to his capital, and left behind him desolation and columns and pyramids composed of hundreds of thousands of human heads. The history of the world is stained a deep crimson by innumerable bloody incidents, some on the colossal scale of great wars, commemorated and mourned for a thousand years, and some remembered only by families and friends, the lives of whose loved ones have been extinguished in the pettiness of a grocery store robbery or a late-night altercation. The world points to declining crime figures and the absence of world-engulfing conflict, “saying, Peace, peace! when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6 v 14).

Anger is at the root of so much of this history of violence – Cain’s anger brought violence into the world. “For the pressing of milk bringeth forth butter, and the pressing of the nose bringeth forth blood; and the pressing of anger bringeth forth strife.” (Proverbs 30 v 33). There is the fury which flames into impulsive violence, and there is the slow-burning anger of conquerors and warlords which endures through sieges and crushes nations. There is the violence of actions and the violence of words. We’re warned to stay away from people who are angry: “Make no friendship with an angry man, and go not with a furious man; lest thou learn his paths, and get a snare to thy soul.” (Proverbs 22 v 24-25). Anger is often seen as a necessary – and even positive – thing in the world of business: one is seen as being firm and decisive if one can give an incompetent subordinate or a difficult supplier a tongue-lashing. However, the scripture says this: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” (Proverbs 16 v 32). It is written of our beloved Lord Jesus, Who has gone before us in this pathway of challenges, dangers, and temptations – suffering but remaining perfect and sinless – “when reviled, reviled not again; when suffering, threatened not; but gave himself over into the hands of him who judges righteously…” (1 Peter 2 v 23). He is the perfect Exemplar in all things to us. His pathway was marked with perfect evenness (so unlike ours!): when a strong rebuke of evil was required He delivered it without hesitation, and when gentleness was required He would draw near to the needy sinner in tender care. Sometimes we need to be angry. The Lord found in the temple the sellers of oxen, sheep, and doves; he made a scourge of cords and cast them all out, poured out the change of the money-changers, turned over the tables. “And his disciples remembered that it is written, The zeal of thy house devours me.” (John 2 v 17). The Lord’s every thought and action as a Man here was perfect. He was full of righteous zeal for the house of His Father, angry at the debasing of it by merchants and their merchandise. We should have zeal for the spiritual house, God’s house, of which we are a part, “which is the assembly of the living God, the pillar and base of the truth” (1 Timothy 3 v 15). Our anger needs to be governed by the Spirit. “Be angry, and do not sin; let not the sun set upon your wrath, neither give room for the devil.” (Ephesians 4 v 26-27). Our anger needs to be spiritual, not fleshly, directed against what God’s own anger is directed – sin – and only for a limited duration. Any deviation from the direction of the Spirit in our anger gives room for the devil, and he’ll be quick to turn it into a source of strife and violence.

However, there is a need for spiritual violence. “But from the days of John the baptist until now, the kingdom of the heavens is taken by violence, and the violent seize on it.” (Matthew 11 v 12). Only with strong exercise, with spiritual vigour, will we be in the good of kingdom, will we truly possess it. When John was baptising, those of Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the country around the Jordan came to him to be baptised, confessing their sins (Matthew 3 v 5). They seized upon what came in by John, the opportunity to separate from the corruption of the Jewish nation, to confess their part in it and separate themselves from it in baptism. They came apart, they did violence to the ties that bound them by nature and kinship to their brethren in the flesh. Are we willing to do violence to what holds us back from going apart from the world and committing ourselves to the Lord? We may be part of a great crowd following Jesus, but have we put ourselves to the test? “And great crowds went with him; and, turning round, he said to them, If any man come to me, and shall not hate his own father and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yea, and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple; and whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14 v 25-27) (See also Matthew 10 v 34-39).

Anger and violence are a necessary part of our walk as believers, but not anger and violence as the world knows it. This anger and this violence serves a wholly different purpose, and secures far more than the temporary and unstable kingdoms of this world. We may suffer losses, we may have to give up what’s naturally very dear to us, but we’ll be rewarded with infinitely more than we’ve sacrificed. God is no man’s debtor. May we all be encouraged to take up that cross, day by day, taking each day at a time.

*The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, viii, c 65, p 136