Written by Derek J. Brown |
Monday, January 22, 2024
It’s not enough to have our anger motivated by the right reasons. Our anger must also be expressed in a godly way, or our anger will quickly downgrade to sinful wrath. Righteous anger is self-controlled anger. Although we may have a good reason to be angry—Christ was blasphemed, a fellow image bearer was mistreated, false teaching is wreaking havoc in people’s lives—we cannot allow that righteous anger to explode into a fury of harsh words and harmful violence. This means that righteous anger doesn’t merely vent itself (Prov. 29:11). Rather, those who are righteously angry will control their speech and their body (Prov. 14:17; 16:32), and channel that anger toward the problem rather than the person.
If you survey popular psychological literature, you’ll find that anger is often defined in negative terms. In an article at Psychology Today, for example, Hara Marano describes anger as a “negative experience so closely bound to pain and depression that it can sometimes be hard to know where one of these experiences ends and another begins.” In another article, Marano observes, “people have trouble managing anger and other negative emotions” (emphasis added). Yet, classifying anger as a negative emotion is not entirely accurate. Although anger can stem from unwholesome motives or be expressed in harmful, destructive ways, anger as such is not essentially negative or wrong.
We know that anger is not necessarily negative because God is described as one who is angry at the wicked every day (Ps. 5:5). Yes, the Old Testament speaks of God as “slow to anger” (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:8) but the Scripture also contains several instances where God’s anger is the centerpiece of the narrative (Num. 25:4; 32:14). In the New Testament, Jesus was angry with the religious leaders for allowing the temple to become a place of trade (John 2:13-17) and for their unwillingness to show compassion on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5).
Anger, therefore, is not necessarily wrong or sinful. In God’s case, anger is the natural response of perfect holiness in the face of sin. God’s anger is always righteous anger.
But that’s God. What about us? Is it possible for Christians to exhibit righteous anger? The Bible acknowledges that our anger may be unrighteous (Col. 3:8; James 1:19), and our experience would attest that it often is. But the Scripture also teaches that it is possible for Christians to express righteous anger and that it is our responsibility to do so when circumstances call for it.
For example, Paul, quoting David from Psalm 4:4, instructs the Christians in Ephesus to “Be angry, but do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). In both texts, David and Paul are commanding their readers to be angry. How could they instruct such a thing? Because there are times when it is right and good and wholesome to be angry. Indeed, an absence of anger when a situation calls for it is likely a sign of moral indifference and apathy, not spiritual maturity.
But given our propensity to unrighteous anger, it is vital that we understand what constitutes righteous anger. Not every angry impulse flows from godly motivations, and not every expression of anger is warranted or appropriate. In the remaining portion of this article, we will consider the marks of righteous anger so that we might grow in our capacity to be angry over the right things and angry in the right ways.
Righteous Anger Is Angry over the Right Things
Often our anger is piqued because we’ve been maligned or mistreated. While there is a place for anger over personal mistreatment (Prov. 25:23), such anger easily swerves into a selfish concern over our own desires (see James 4:1-3). When it comes to petty offenses, Scripture instructs us to overlook them (Prov. 19:11).
But a sure mark that our anger is righteous is that it is roused when God’s glory is maligned and his name mistreated. David was angry because people in Israel were speaking against the Lord and likely dishonoring the Tabernacle and corporate worship in some way (Ps. 69:9). John quotes this verse and applies it to the Greater David after he found the temple overrun by commerce and fraudulent business practice. Jesus, acting in righteous anger, flipped over tables and chased the merchants away from the spectacle (John 2:17). Jesus was incensed when his Father was dishonored, not when he was dishonored. Indeed, Jesus endured severe mistreatment without ever becoming angry or vindictive toward his enemies or seeking his own restitution (see Luke 23:34). Righteous anger is anger that is riled when our gracious heavenly Father is slandered and his worship disgraced.
Righteous anger is also kindled when we encounter injustice perpetrated against fellow image-bearers.