As a student at Penn State, I was walking on campus when a hippie came sauntering down the same sidewalk. I was on the right side of the sidewalk and he was coming directly at me. Having done that “dance” in junior high and high school where you meet up with someone in the hallway and both try to get out of the way but both bob and weave as if mirrors of each other, I decided to step off of the sidewalk altogether. He passed on the exact part of the walkway I had been on. I turned and watched him slouch by; long, unkept hair, dirty-looking jeans, seemingly self-absorbed, and totally, I thought, inconsiderate. It irked me.
I went home that evening and considered what might be a fitting scenario. Hide in the bushes, head covered, with sheep shears in hand. When one of those degenerates walked close, jump out, give him a haircut and maybe drag him to some water and scrub him with soap. Then an opposing thought asked, “Is that what the Lord Jesus would have you do?”
My natural inclination was to get into confrontations with those with whom I disagreed. I had been part of a politically conservative campus group where debates were sometimes heated. One left-leaning student became so agitated that he challenged me to a fist fight. I laughed him off. But this was different. This hippie had actually gotten me angry. He stood for so much that I stood against. Now I was being confronted by an inner question that had to be answered.
The question of how Jesus would have me treat that student expanded. What if I did clean him up and even change his mind politically? If he died a conservative would that save him? If he became part of middle-America, lived the American dream, and was a productive citizen, would that give him eternal life? That led me to a conclusion: the best thing I could do for him and others like him would be to give him the gospel. That also set me on an inner journey that had personal implications.
The following paragraphs are partially from a short piece I wrote sometime after that incident, somewhat edited.
There is, in the book of James, a disturbing little passage that is worth taking a look at. It goes like this, “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” ((James.1:19, 20). The disturbing part of that passage is that it does not really leave room for man’s wrath in any circumstance.
It is rather obvious to apply that passage to someone who hits his finger with a hammer and then invokes God’s retribution on the hammer and anything else present, or to the boorish husband who is angered at his wife’s burning the evening meal, or to the little boy throwing a temper tantrum because he is called away from play to do work. But what about some legitimate anger? Like at the government when it tramples individual rights to enforce an obscure bureaucratic rule, or a foreign power holding Americans hostage, or at an agnostic who is continuously making fun of Christ and the Bible? Is there no room for a bit of wrath?
Perhaps another passage can help with the answer. “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose…” (2 Tim. 2:24, 25). It is unto all men we are to be gentle. And this is the disturbing part. Our natural response to injustice or to oppression or to obnoxious people, is wrath. But the Christian response is supernatural. Let us yield our rights, our natural feelings, our responses, to the
Lord. And let everyone be slow to wrath, patient.
Those words I wrote in 1979 were formative in helping me change from allowing a knee-jerk reaction (which was too often anger) to determine my response to negative or disagreeable influences or people, and endeavor to allow the Holy Spirit of Christ to determine how I react. That is not always easy.
It is not easy to curtail anger at propagandist media, prevaricating politicians, bigoted movements, violent thugs, vulgar bloggers, and inveterate liars, to name a few. It is not easy to delay a natural response of anger to blatant sinners, “Who rejoice to do evil, and delight in the frowardness of the wicked” (Pr. 2:14). But remember, we are not called to give a natural response to sinners. We can easily condemn, but as the old evangelist used to say, any old southern farmer sitting on his back porch chewing Brown Mule Tobacco can tell you what is sinful. We are called to something better.
Jesus came into this sin-stained world to save it. “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17). That disturbing little passage from James tells me that I will not be an aid in promoting God’s righteousness with the wrath of man. I may let off steam, cool down, and even feel better about myself if I give an angry message to or about the sinners who so openly advertise and exhibit their evil ways. But in so doing, I will not help them to Christ, “for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”
The world does not need more condemnation, at least not from our angry lips. It is condemned already, the Bible says. It is condemned by conscience, by the results of their evil deeds, by others in the world, by the devil who condemns as he tempts them, by the natural order of the world, and by a thousand little things that heaps condemnation onto condemnation. The world stands guilty and condemned already without our angry countenance piling on. What the world needs is the gospel.
That is the truth that stung me as a youth in college when I felt the gentle reproof at my anger at the hippie movement and that one particular student in particular. I began praying for them. How else could I have looked from a second floor room and watched thousands of radicals as they marched down a campus street and been overcome with compassion instead of loathing? Somehow God took the anger out of me and gave me a gospel vision. Each one of these was a student for whom Christ died.
Jesus was sent to the world, to the cross, to the tomb, not to condemn them but to save them. Now He is alive, having risen on the third day, and is seated on the right hand of the Father. The Holy Spirit is reproving the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come (John 16:8). It is the privilege of the followers of Jesus to tell them that they can find forgiveness of sins in this life, and hope of heaven in the life to come.
Let’s be about the great commission. We do not have time for the wrath of man to get in the way of the gospel.