Regarding anger, Aristotle wrote, “We praise a man who is angry on the right grounds, against the right persons, in the right manner, at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”
Aristotle lays out five common-sense criteria that must be satisfied for anger to be justified rather than condemned. Although Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5.21–22 seems to condemn anger out of hand, a fuller consideration of the Gospels shows that even he was angry occasionally. According to Mark 3.5, for example, Jesus became “angry” at the “stubborn hearts” of his murderous critics. What Jesus condemns is unjustified anger, in other words, not anger per se. There is something wrong with a person who does not became angry when he sees sin and injustice wreaking havoc on innocent lives.
In Matthew 5.25–26, Jesus says, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5.25–26).
The adversary Jesus mentions satisfies Aristotle’s five criteria of justified anger. He is angry on the right grounds (an unpaid debt), against the right person (the debtor), in the right manner (using legal means to collect the debt), at the right moment (the debt has gone unpaid for some time), and for the right length of time (when the last penny is paid). His actions against his debtor are legitimate.
But notice that Jesus addresses his remarks not to the adversary but to the debtor. By doing so, he asks and answers a simple question: How do we deal with our adversaries when they are right? Simple: We repent.
Notice Jesus’ specific words: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary…. Do it while you are still with him on the way.” To settle matters with a creditor means repaying a debt or making an offer in compromise. If you have done something wrong to another person, repentance involves restitution.
And doing so quickly! Jesus advises us to try to settle matters right up to the courthouse door. We live in a highly litigious society. No doubt the amount of lawsuits would drop precipitously if both plaintiff and defendant agreed to work out their problem in good faith and on their own.
What is necessary to accomplish such an outcome? A little grace on the part of the person who has been wronged, and a little humility on the part of the wrongdoer. That is easy to say, of course, but not less true because of the ease. Unfortunately, you cannot force your adversary to be nice if you’re the debtor. But your actions are under your control. So, settle matters quickly. If you do, you won’t give anyone cause to be angry with you.