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How Martin Luther and Moses failed anger management 101

Martin Luther statue in Dresden, Germany.
Martin Luther statue in Dresden, Germany. | iStock/robertmandel

The Christian Post recently reported on a roundtable discussion where Dr. Michael Brown “pointed to the writings of Martin Luther being quoted by the Nazis in the run-up to World War II.” So, what are we to make of Luther's bitter castigation of the Jewish people toward the end of his life?

It has been said, “Anger is a deeply personal experience that can quickly become very public.” Moses and Martin Luther are two renowned leaders who were used by the Lord in monumental ways, but who nevertheless were consumed at times by personal anger that became very public. 

Moses was given the Law on Mount Sinai about 3,500 years ago, and Martin Luther discovered the Gospel in Scripture about 500 years ago. Moses and Luther were exceptionally gifted men uniquely chosen by God, and yet both leaders possessed the penchant to lose control of their anger when they witnessed people behaving badly. 

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For example, Moses in a burst of anger killed an abusive Egyptian taskmaster (see Exodus 2:11-12). And when the Lord instructed Moses to speak to the rock so that water would pour out for the Israelites, (see Numbers 20:6-13) Moses’ anger and frustration with God’s people led him to disobey the Lord. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses angrily struck the rock twice with his staff. As a result of his sinful disobedience, God did not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land.

Unfortunately, Martin Luther also failed this important test of leadership when he stubbornly refused to properly manage his anger toward the Jews. Luther of course was the seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation who translated the Bible into German for the masses. But Luther became furious when the Jews of his day did not accept Jesus as Messiah, and he responded in the flesh rather than in the Spirit. 

Righteous anger is experienced in the Spirit, whereas sinful anger becomes manifest in the flesh. Discerning between the two requires wisdom from the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 21:12-13; Ephesians 4:26-27; 30-31).

Sadly, even illustrious spiritual titans like Moses and Martin Luther at times choose to engage in wicked behavior. Luther’s sinful nature was no better or worse than yours or mine. And it was no better or worse than the sinful nature of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Romans 7:18).

The basement room of man’s soul is completely wretched. The sinful nature is distinct from the heart and mind, and is something believers don’t shed until our soul leaves our body when we die. Christians have been set free to live with a pure heart and stay out of the basement with our thoughts, words and deeds. A believer in Jesus is dedicated to thinking and living in a way that pleases the Lord (see Romans 6:15-23; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Philippians 4:8).

Possessing a holy hatred for false teaching is noble, but losing control of your anger and lashing out at people when they refuse to come to Christ is immoral and undisciplined. Luther's exasperation over the Jews rejecting Jesus drove him to write some shameful things. Luther should have followed our Lord’s example instead. While suffering intense agony on the cross, Jesus prayed for the soldiers who were crucifying Him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). 

And compare Luther’s revolting rhetoric to the Apostle Paul’s undying and abiding love for the Jews. Paul wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:2-4).

Consider our Lord’s deep and unconditional love for the Jewish people. Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37).

Scripture declares, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Hopefully, Martin Luther’s unrestrained attacks and repulsive vitriol did not drive the Holy Spirit from his heart and prevent the otherwise disciplined reformer from confessing his sin and asking the Lord to forgive him. Given the utter depravity of man's sinful nature, Luther wisely instructed his followers, “Don’t call yourselves Lutherans, but Christians.” 

A couple hours before his death in 1546, Luther began repeating over and over: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” And perhaps in those final hours, Luther reflected upon the glorious fact that “the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). 

Luther may have even recalled these words he had written 23 years earlier: “I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs.”

It was Jesus Christ living within Martin Luther (see Galatians 2:20) who produced kindness toward the Jews in 1523, just as it was Luther’s sinful nature and his trips to the basement that would later result in his simmering hostility toward the Jews. 

The avoidable offenses in the lives of Martin Luther and Moses can serve as a cautionary tale to each of us whenever we get upset at the actions of others. Uncontrolled anger and ranting against those with whom you disagree can have far-reaching consequences. 

Nevertheless, I suspect that Martin Luther and Moses, like each one of God’s children, would handle certain events in their lives much differently if they could go back and undo those angry and fateful decisions that quickly became very public.

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Papillion, Nebraska. 

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