The Roots Of RageErwin W. Lutzer | October 15, 2000
Selected highlights from this sermon
Everyone has been mad or angry at some point in their lives. Though it’s okay to be angry, the Bible warns us not to sin when we’re angered.
When anger turns into rage—that’s when the line has been crossed. So you need to deal with anger immediately—don’t allow it to fester and boil over.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer walks us through the cycle of anger: where it begins, how it can manifest itself in our lives and relationships, the consequences of not dealing with it, and most importantly, how you can overcome it.
God can and does deliver His people from the roots of rage.
Bobby Knight was a basketball coach. He was quite famous actually and he was fired because of his hot temper. One of the columnists, writing in a newspaper, said that he worked himself into a competitive lather, and because he was out of control, he was out of a job.
Anger is a very common emotion. As a matter of fact, one of the things that unifies us is that we have all felt anger. Could I say that if you have not at some time been angry, and I mean good and angry, you probably have never really lived, because all of us have been angry?
Let me begin by talking about some introductory comments about anger. First of all, not all anger is sin. “When angry, do not sin,” the Bible says in Ephesians 4. It’s possible to be angry without sinning. It says in Mark 3 that Jesus Christ looked about in the synagogue and when He saw the hardness of their hearts He was livid with anger. Jesus was angry. God, the Bible says, is angry with the wicked every day (it says in the Psalms), so not all anger is sin. Yes, it is possible to be good and angry.
Let me give you a second observation, and that is that anger, however, does distort our perceptions. You think of someone who in a fit of rage decides that because of a custody battle or whatever he’s going to kill his wife, and so he shoots her, and maybe he shoots the kids too. It happens all the time. I often think about those people waking up in prison every morning for the rest of their lives regretting deeply what they’ve done in a moment of anger. Let me tell you something. It is possible to do in a moment what an entire lifetime cannot recapture or recover.
Let me say also that most anger is masked. It is unseen. There’s an awful lot of anger that is beneath the surface. You know, you speak to those who have done the massacres. I’m talking about the kids in our high schools in America. Oftentimes the parents say, “I didn’t know that he was that angry,” because a lot of it is hidden. There was a man by the name of Mark Barton who killed his wife, I believe, and his children, and several other people, and a neighbor said of him, “He was such a good role model, it makes you wonder whether you know anyone anymore.” And I tell you today that you have no idea the anger that might be existing in the heart of someone sitting next to you. Most of it is masked.
Well, as you know, this is a series of messages titled Why Good People Do Bad Things and we’ve spoken first of all of being lost in a house of mirrors, how we have this challenge before us of finding out who we are, and we are all going around looking for a mirror that makes us look good. And the whole question of identity lies at the heart of behavior.
A second message was entitled Deceived and Loving It, and I pointed out that we are not rationally driven, though we think we are. We are basically desire-driven. We are deceived because we want to be deceived. Our heart longs to be deceived so it can do whatever it wants to do. And last time we spoke about shame, the two different kinds of shame and God’s cure for shame, which lies at the root of many problems that people have.
Well today it’s anger. And I need to begin by talking about domestic violence. Some of you may say, “Well, you know that’s not a big problem, especially among folks who are connected to Moody Church. We’re all so nice, aren’t we?” Yeah, aren’t we? According to Everett Koop, who was the surgeon general of the United States, it is the number one health problem. And did you realize that one-third of all women who come to emergency rooms or doctors’ offices for immediate treatment come because of domestic violence. They have been abused. They have been battered.
Now, of course, it’s very difficult to come up with a profile of an abuser. It’s very difficult because they are so nice. They are so charming. They can be so lovable. They can be funny and then suddenly, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they switch and they become violent and angry and irrational. And because of that, that’s one reason why women marry men, not knowing that they are abusers until the honeymoon.
There is such a thing as physical violence – slapping, pushing, hitting and choking. And then of course there is verbal and emotional abuse that takes place among those who perhaps would never physically do violence but emotionally the damage is the same or greater – cursing, threats and economic punishment. How do you like that for a euphemism? Economic punishment! That’s where the wife has to go to the husband for every dime that she gets. “You come to me and I’ll dish out the money, and after I’ve done it you’d better report to me on how you spent the last five dollars I gave you.”
That’s all anger that’s masked. That’s economic punishment, trying to humiliate her. Don’t ever lose sight of the goal that an abuser has. It is to destabilize his wife so that she will keep it a secret, so that she will be taking total responsibility for it because, you see, in his mind what he’s saying is, “You made me slap you. It’s your fault,” so that she’s going to take the responsibility and also so that if she goes for help he so beats her down that she concludes that no one would believe her anyway. So I need to tell you this today, you wives. If you come to us as members of the pastoral staff we will believe you. We will believe your story. Whatever you do, get some help.
Now the question, of course, is this. What about anger? What does the Bible have to say about it? You know, the Bible is so accurate it’s just incredible. As I open its pages I’m always reminded that this has to be a book from God. There is no other book that you can produce in the world that will tell the truth about us like the Bible tells the truth about us. It can shine a flashlight on the human heart and then we read it, and we say, “Yes, that is true to my experience,” because there are two different kinds of anger, and the Bible refers to both of them, in fact, even in one verse. Notice, for example, Ephesians 4, and we shall begin there, and then I shall ask you to turn to one other story in the Bible today.
It says in Ephesians 4:30, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness and rage.” Now notice it. Everyone awake at this juncture! Rage is the Greek word thumos.
Let me talk to you about that word rage. If there were an animal that would describe the word it would be the pit bull. It’s rage. “You know I just fly off the handle and I just let them have it, and when I am finished, you know I’m finished, but that’s just the way I am. I put my fist through walls, and sure, I slapped her, but that was just momentary, and now everything is fine, isn’t it? What’s the big deal?” But the pit bull leaves an awful lot of damage behind, and nothing is ever quite the same again. He may ask for forgiveness, but he’s going to do it again. The roots of rage, as we shall see today, go much deeper than simply a promise to reform.
But that’s the Greek word that is used here – thumos. It is rage. And then notice another word is referred to – the word anger. That’s orge. Anger is resentment. Anger is the person who doesn’t have any outward signs necessarily. He’s not physically abusing but he loves to plot revenge. So what he does is he methodically, without any emotion, begins to figure out ways in which he can get by and get back, and he is very insistent on revenge. And so you never know what he’s up to because he does it without any emotion. If there would be an animal that would represent him it would be the cobra. You assess the situation. You find out what you can do and then in a subtle way you squeeze them to death.
Now the question is, “What are the roots of rage?” What makes people out of control? Why is it that you have people who are so nice, who adore their wives one moment and then lash out in anger in the next in an unpredictable way? And unpredictability is very important to the abuser because he destabilizes his wife and keeps her off balance emotionally and spiritually, and physically maybe as well.
And when we look at the roots of rage, even those of us who aren’t abusers, we need to look at our own hearts because at the end of the day, we are going to find something in God’s word that is very applicable to us all. It is a promise.
Let’s begin the journey. Take your Bibles and turn to the book of Genesis where things got started. We’ve been in Genesis before in this series because if you understand the first few chapters of Genesis you will discover that you understand the roots of a lot of problems.
I’m going to pick up the text in Genesis 4:2. “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.”
The Hebrew word for anger there basically is also related to the nostrils. It has to do with flaring, snorting anger. He is really, really upset.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.”
Pit bull rage! I’m going to show you! What’s going on? What is the root of rage? It is really rejection, a sense of being rejected, a sense that you don’t belong and that it’s not merely that you have done wrong but somehow fundamentally you are wrong. You are of very little value so you can understand that since that lies at the heart of it we have such things being belittled or diminished. It makes you so angry.
A couple of days ago I was on the Kennedy Expressway driving along in the reversible lanes, as they call them, and when you get near the junction there, some of you know the place where everybody who wants to go in one direction has to be in the right lane if you want to go on the Kennedy. And then if you stay on the left it ends up being on the Edens. Well lots of cars were on the right side, but some of those other folks are smart, you know. They aren’t going to get at the back of the line. They are going to drive right up front and then try to get in ahead of you, and this car did that. Hello! I did all I could do to keep from stepping on the gas and just ramming it. (laughter) I didn’t. Why? What’s the big deal? Do you know his coming in ahead of me - what are we talking about in terms of me getting to where I was going? We were talking about thirty seconds maybe to have one more car having to be processed on the expressway. No big deal! Where is it? I’ll tell you where it is. I’m diminished.
What he’s saying is, “I’m more important than you. As a matter of fact, I’m not beginning at the back of the line. I can go right up here and I can go ahead of everybody because I am So-and-So and I’m important and you are just trash, and I’m here.” Well, I don’t know whether he was thinking that. All that I know is that I’ve done the same thing many times. (laughter) Isn’t it amazing? It’s called road rage. Who are you to get ahead of me?
Now let’s translate that into being a child, and you are constantly belittled and you are diminished and you’re marginalized and you are side-lined and anger begins to well up in your soul. There is rejection. There is belittling and powerlessness, the feeling that you can’t change anything. Here’s a child who is abused at home. He comes home and he knows that there is no way to predict whether he’s going to be spanked because the simple fact is it doesn’t matter. Some days he won’t be. Some days he will be. If he’s good he’s whipped, and if he’s not good he’s whipped. So the sense of powerless - this injustice - breeds deep resentment and anger.
And then, of course you have shame. There are those who have been abused sexually or otherwise, and that’s why it’s so important to take the message we preached last time and shove it in right here. If you come from a shame-based home you will have a lot of resentment and anger. A lot of anger is nothing more than a mask for the hidden shame that has not been dealt with.
Well, in a moment we’re going to be talking about how to take care of it. You know, I think of myself that I was brought up in a very fine home with all the affirmation and the sense of respect and love, and yet when I was growing up I had a terrible temper, and I’ve often thought to myself, “You know, if I had been brought up in a home where you have all of that cauldron that we sometimes refer to as dysfunctional homes, who knows the things that you and I, or others, may be capable of doing?”
Well, before we get to the cure, very quickly, what are some of the consequences of unresolved anger? Let me just give you some. First of all, you might blow up to your detriment and do drastic things. It happens all the time – the pit bull that says, “I’m not going to take it anymore,” and you blow up, you let it all hang out. You know, years ago secular therapists in desperation, not understanding the human heart from the standpoint of Scripture, tried to find an answer to anger. They would say, “Well what you need to do is you need to just have an outlet for it. Take this pillow and pretend it is your mother-in-law, and then do to it whatever you want. Mangle it or hit it with a baseball bat, and you’ll get all that anger out of you. That is utter nonsense. It will only inflame the anger. It will only bring the anger to the surface. It will not deal with the root. In fact most people now agree that that is the case and they could have saved themselves an awful lot of grief if they’d have understood right from the beginning that that’s not the way to deal with it.
So you can blow up. If you are a man, that’s likely to happen. If you are woman it’s more likely that you clam up and you become what is known as passive aggressive. Passive aggressive, and of course men can be this too, is kind of where you procrastinate, where you are stubborn, where you are obstinate, and all the while being actually quite nice especially if you are a Christian woman. For example, you are angry with your husband on Saturday. You wake up Sunday morning and you are still angry with him so what you decide to do is to take your time getting ready for church. And you just let the goon wait out in the car (laughter) especially if you know that he is compulsive about being on time. Just take your time. Be late and you get in the car and you’ve even got a Christian smile on. He is seething. Let’s use the Old Testament Hebrew word. He is snorting with anger, and you gently remind him that anger is sin and that he should not be acting this way (laughter) especially since we’re on our way to church where we are going to worship God. In your heart of hearts you know right well what you did. Most women who live with men know all the buttons they can push. They know every one that can really get his goat. Someone said one time, “How do you get a policeman’s goat? You steal his Billy, I guess.”
So this is what happens in those marriage relationships. You can blow up. You can clam up. You’ll have difficulty in relationships. This is so important that, as you know, another message in this series is devoted simply to your father and your relationship with him because that impacts who we are and how we respond to various situations. And later on also we’re going to be discussing what it really means for a person to turn evil. What about these controlling people that cross the line?
But there will be difficulty in relationships if you don’t deal with anger because you are going to have lack of trust. Those of you women who have been abused by men, you are in general going to have an attitude about all men that is going to be negative. Any relationship that develops is always going to be disruptive. You’ll always keep putting the bar higher no matter what the man wants to do to show that he loves you. It’ll never be enough because the rules of the game will change, and on and on it goes.
You see, regarding people who have been abused, they have been sinned against and then in response they also sin. They are both victims of sin and then become agents of sin. Well we don’t want to have that to happen, do we? And that’s why we are talking now about the cure.
Before I mention that, however, let me remind you that God does deliver people from anger. In a book entitled Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them, Paul Hegstrom, who is the author of the book, tells his own story. Here he is. He is brought up in a fine Christian home. At the age of nine he accepts Christ as Savior. He is going to go into the ministry, and then is molested six months after that by one of the men in the neighborhood. He can’t deal with it really. He can’t talk about it in his home because things like that aren’t talked about. They are put on the shelf, so he is trying to process this as a nine-year old, and finally in desperation he goes to his mother with a hypothetical question and says, “If David down the street were molested (and I don’t know which words he used) by an older man, what would that mean?” And the mother said, “Well, if that ever happened to David you couldn’t play with him because he’d know things that no boy should ever know, and he’d be marked, so you wouldn’t have anything to do with him.” She didn’t know she was talking about her son at the age of nine.
So he’s got all of this anger and this shame, this feeling of being very dirty within his heart. He grows up and gets married. He’s a very nice guy. He does well. He’s a charmer, wins the heart of a young woman. They get married on a Saturday and on Sunday he abuses her. What happened was he was having an argument with her brother I believe it was, and she tried to calm them down, and he took her and he just shoved her down. That’s how their honeymoon began. She had no idea that this is the man that she married.
From there on it continued with choking and all these things, all the while, mind you, sprinkled with all these wonderful promises to change, and he even would ask her for forgiveness but would always remind her, “but it is your fault, you know, because you shouldn’t have intervened in that way.” So he made it clear right from the beginning. “It’s your fault. Nobody will believe you. If you go for help it’s your word against mine, so you might as well put up with the misery.”
Three-and-a-half months after they were married they were separated and then they were separated for 3-1/2 years, and they were divorced for 3-1/2 years. At the end of that seven-year period they were remarried and that was 15 years ago, and in those 15 years there has never been an incident of abuse.
God delivers his people from the roots of rage, and we’re going to talk about that now. But I do need to tell you that even though I have a number of points listed and we shall have to go through them hurriedly, this is not something that you can just do quickly and say, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that,” or “I can do this all in one moment.” What we’re talking about, if we are serious, is a whole life style of pursuing the way back. It is a whole life of openness and a willingness to change in the most thorough way and to let God change you and get into your heart.
I’m speaking primarily here today to Christians, but those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior, that’s the beginning point because Christ is the only one who can reconcile us to God so that we experience God’s forgiveness that makes it possible for us now to forgive others and deal with this deep root called rage.
First of all, it is so basic. After all that build-up you expect something profound, don’t you? But it’s just basic. Number one, admit that you have a problem, and because of the fact that most anger is masked, that is a very difficult step. You know the person who is shaking his fist and his face is red and saying, “I’m not angry,” as he pounds against the wall? That is not just a story. That is true. That happens all the time. We do not want to admit that down deep inside we have this simmering rage, or at least if it’s not the level of rage, it’s anger, and a desire for revenge. And that’s why this takes time in the presence of God. “Search me, oh God, and know my heart. Try me and see if there be some wicked way in me.” Let’s reveal the root. Let’s get to the bottom. What did happen that I have never taken care of?
Nehemiah in the Old Testament was angry because of some of the abuses among the Jews and I love the passage in which he said, “I was very angry.” God bless Nehemiah. He was angry and he knew it. So the first step is to admit it.
Second, you can rejoice in God’s love and acceptance of you. Now isn’t this interesting? We’re going back to the story of Cain. Here is Cain who commits this murder, but before he committed murder he was very angry, the text says, and God spoke to him in Genesis 4:6. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
You’d better take care of this right now. God said that to Cain. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had God as your counselor? You know, we have people here at the Moody Church who need counsel so perhaps they talk to Pastor Bertsche. They begin there and they say, “I don’t like Bill’s advice. He hasn’t had that much experience,” so then they go to Pastor Milco, and they say, “Pastor Milco has a degree in counseling. Maybe he’ll be able to give me some really good advice.” So they go to Pastor Milco and then they say, “I don’t like what Pastor Milco had to say. Let’s go to Pastor Worley, or let’s go to Pastor Lutzer. Now there’s somebody who will give me the real answer to my problem,” so they come and they see Pastor Lutzer, and he passes on his little gems of wisdom. And they say, “I don’t like it. I expected something better from him than that,” and so they find another pastor in the neighborhood, and on and on they are going.
Let me ask you something. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God were your counselor, and God were to come out of heaven and say to you, “This is the answer to your problem”? You say, “If only I could hear from God. Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Well, my friend, Cain did, and do you know what? It never helped at all. That’s a comfort to those of us who do counseling. (laughter) It’s sometimes not our fault. It’s sometimes not the advice that we give. It’s sometimes the person who pretends that he wants our advice and then doesn’t do what we suggest.
Look, God is coming, and He’s saying, “Cain, look, you don’t have to be angry like this. If your heart is changed and you bring the right sacrifice you’re going to be accepted just like your brother was accepted. Why all this anger? Deal with it, Cain. What you need to do is to realize that if you come to God in the right way, He will not make a distinction between you and your brother.”
And I say to those of you who feel hurt and dirty and abused, if you come to God through Jesus Christ, you’ll receive the same gift of righteousness as anyone else who has ever believed on Him with all the rights and privileges and honor and correct standing as a child of God, as a son or daughter of the Almighty. You’ll receive that, so why is it that you should continue to hark back over the way in which you were treated, as if to say it’s all lost? It isn’t. You rejoice in God’s acceptance. I realize that would be a message in itself so we need to go on quickly to number three and that is you have to forgive.
What did we read in Ephesians when we began this message? “Be tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” You must choose to let go of all the bitterness. You must give it to God. You say, “Yes, but I want justice.” You can do that and you can maintain your desire for justice, and that is because you punt the ball to God. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves. I will recompense,” says the Lord. God says, “Let me take care of your case for you,” and what you do is you trust the Almighty to do what you can’t. The Almighty will judge the situation in His way and in His time.
So you say, “I really solve this bitterness.” Now some of you need to do that to people who have died such as your father, or someone who has wronged you, or maybe somebody who has not died but is no longer a part of your life. You don’t even know where they live. Remember that forgiveness is something that you can choose to do even without reconciliation. It is something that you do not need the cooperation of your enemy to do. It has to do with you releasing that bitterness to God.
Someone has written, “The man I hate may be many miles from my bedroom, but more cruel than any slave driver. He whips my thoughts into such a frenzy that my inner spring mattress becomes a rack of torture. The lowliest of serfs can sleep, but not I. I really must acknowledge the fact that I am a slave to every man on whom I pour the vile of my wrath.”
Has not the person who has wronged you done enough to disrupt your life already? Does it have to continue by you being eaten with resentment and anger? It is a choice that is difficult to make but it must be done. But listen carefully. Forgiveness is both an act and a process. It’s an act and a process, and it’s something that I do today, and it’s something that I do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day. My whole life is characterized by it.
And then number four, you have to deal with the devil. You really do. You know, the New Testament mentions the name Cain three times. It says in 1 John, “Why did Cain kill his brother, Abel?” And it says, “Because he was of that wicked one,” and it’s referring to Satan.
And then it says in the book of Jude that there are false teachers who have gone the way of Cain, doing their own thing. Now notice that the Scripture is very clear that those who become angry may indeed be influenced by the devil himself. Doesn’t that make sense? He is known as a destroyer. That’s one of his names. He’s the destroyer and he wants you to be a destroyer, and he wants me to be a destroyer. And we can, through our irrational anger and our tempers where we do not get facts, where we haul off quickly and we don’t process what’s going on. There’s so much more that I could say about that.
It says in Ephesians 4, “Do not give place to the devil.” It says, “Let not the sun go down upon your anger.” Don’t let the devil have a foothold. So he’s going to want to just make you a destroyer either by clamming up through passive aggression, of by blowing up like that pit bull that we spoke about a moment ago.
And then, of course, number five, there is accountability and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit where you begin to examine your life and allow God to do it, because these roots run deep. And then you are held accountable for your behavior and willing to face the pain that your own anger has inflicted, and you receive the forgiveness of all those around you whom you have wronged so that there can be a sense of a new beginning in accountability and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit of God.
The other day someone sent me a story about a professor in a seminary that we shall call Brother Smith.
Brother Smith was creative in being able to think of ways to make a point to his students. He used object lessons. So the kids came to class and he had a target on the wall, and on the table next to the students there were all of these darts. So he said to them, “What I want you to do is to draw a picture of someone whom you dislike, maybe even someone you hate, and you are going to get a chance to use the dart board.”
And so they drew pictures. Here’s a girl who drew a picture of a girl who had stolen her boyfriend from her. Here was somebody else, a woman, who drew a picture of a man who had abused her. I think the question was not whether the kids could think of anyone who could fit into the category. The question was, “Who do you choose when you get an opportunity like that?”
So they put their pictures up on the target and they used the darts. Some of those students threw the darts so hard that their targets began to break apart. Oh they had some fun doing it, but there was more than fun. This was more than that. It was getting it all out.
When they were finished, Brother Smith took the target and peeled it off the wall, and behind it was a picture of Jesus. And when the students saw the mangled picture of Jesus, when they saw that his eyes had been pierced out, and his cheeks and his neck had been so brutally torn, they just began to weep. And Brother Smith said to them, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto Me.” Even after the bell rang the students did not leave but stayed there contemplating what they had done.
This word comes from my heart to your heart today. Every arrow that we throw at someone, every attack on a husband, a wife, or a child is an arrow that pierces the heart of Jesus. “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto Me.”
We are all guilty and we come to the foot of the cross to receive cleansing and forgiveness, and ask the forgiveness of those whom we have wronged and we deal with the root and God will change us.
Let’s join together in prayer.
Father, today I am burdened to pray for homes where there is abuse, and probably no one knows about it. I think of all those secrets in our families, those secrets of shame that so impact the lives of children and others, and I pray today, Father God, for the healing of Your people. I think of the many people who are angry who will listen to this message and say that it was interesting but not change. God, we are up against something that only You can do. Therefore, we give up all hope that we can transform human behavior, but we trust Your blessed Holy Spirit to overcome the natural resistance of the human will.
We pray for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior. They have never believed on Him, and though I did not explain the Gospel in detail, help them to understand that Jesus is the Savior. And may they cleave to Him, and having been forgiven much, then may they love much, and forgive much. Whatever You intended to do by your Spirit, would YSou do it, Father, I ask right now?
And now in this moment of quietness I want you to talk to God. You respond to Him in light of what you have learned and in light of what the Holy Spirit is showing you today.
Father, seal the decisions that are being made for we know that we are talking about a process. Bring conviction. Bring reconciliation. Bring hope, and do a deep and mighty work we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.