The Role of Righteous Anger in Christians

April 21, 2022 | Michael Foster

There is a need to clarify biblical teaching on anger. Anger can be righteous and helpful when grounded in love and controlled by the Spirit, but dangerous and destructive when grounded in sin and controlled by the flesh. Therefore, I offer the following biblical points on anger:

 

  1. Ephesians 4:26 says “be angry, but do not sin”! According to this verse, there is a time for believers to be angry. And yet, right away, the verse recognizes the dangerous potential for anger to lead to sin. And it warns us about being angry for too long (“do not let the sun go down”), and then the next verse warns about “giving the devil a foothold.” But anger does not have to lead to sin. Anger can be an emotion God allows us to feel to tell us something is not right and needs to be fixed. It is not the opposite of love (that would be hatred), and it can be rightfully grounded in love. When someone drives recklessly through my neighborhood and endangers my children, my love for my children inspires me to become angry with the driver and can motivate me to rightful action – lovingly confronting the driver if possible, or building a fence to protect my children, or petitioning authorities to put speed bumps on my road if it happens repeatedly. And I can still graciously forgive the driver even while seeking to correct and protect. If I merely suppress that anger, however, needed change and reconciliation may not happen. Anger can prompt faithful, loving intervention. If one feels anger, the next thing one should do is to prayerfully consider what to do with that anger that will honor the Lord.

 

  1. Jesus was righteously angry multiple times. Most famously, Jesus became angry in the temple when religious profiteers were exploiting people. In response to the regular injustice being practiced, Jesus made a whip and overturned tables. Jesus did this at least twice, once in the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13-25) and once toward the end (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 2:15-17, Luke 2:45-46). But these are not the only times we see Jesus become angry in the gospels. One Sabbath at the synagogue, Jesus became “deeply distressed” at the stubborn hearts of the Pharisees and “looked around at them in anger” when they were against him healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5). Jesus also became indignant with his own disciples when they rebuked people for bringing children to Him (Mark 10:14). These expressions of anger from Jesus should not shock us if we were paying attention to times in the Old Testament when God became angry.[i] The psalmists often appeal to God’s anger as their only hope against injustice, pleading with God to feel the pain of their injustice and to respond with judgment (Psalm 7:6-9, 10:12-15, 12:1-3, 74:18-23, 82:8).

 

  1. The Lord is slow to anger, and He commands us to be as well. When God reveals his glory in Exodus 34, Moses proclaims, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (vv. 6-7). These essential attributes of God, including being slow to anger, are repeated throughout the Old Testament (Numbers 14:18, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 86:15, Jonah 4:2 – to the dismay of Jonah!). In the New Testament, we are specifically commanded to be slow to become angry (James 1:19). We are also told to clothe ourselves with patience and to “bear with one another” (Colossians 3:12-13).

 

  1. We must control our anger or it will control us. After telling us to be “slow to become angry,” James reasons “because man’s anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (1:20). In other words, anger is very dangerous. The Proverbs constantly warn about the pitfalls of anger: “A quick tempered man does foolish things” (14:17); “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city” (16:32); “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming” (27:4). Because of these dangers of anger, the New Testament consistently warns against sinful anger and its various manifestations. Jesus says “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:22). Ephesians 4:31-32 commands us to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice,” calling us instead to “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you.” Colossians 3:8 similarly instructs us to rid ourselves of “anger, rage, and malice.” The writer of Hebrews warns us about the “bitter root” that can grow up when we do not “make every effort to live in peace with everyone” (12:14-15). And Paul teaches us in Romans to “live at peace with everyone” as much as it depends on us, and says “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath” (12:18-19). It is no secret that anger, when unchecked, can bring destruction to our bodies, our relationships, our families, and our communities.

 

  1. Mercy triumphs over judgment. One of the temptations of sinful anger is to become judgmental. We must allow the Lord to be judge, not ourselves. James writes that “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful; mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13). Jonah longed for judgment of the Ninevites, but God showed mercy as Jonah struggled with sinful anger (Jonah 4:9). Many longed for Jesus to judge the people of his day (consider Luke 9:54-55), but he constantly chose mercy. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Even when we have righteous anger, we ought to ultimately long for mercy for people, just as Jesus had mercy on us in our sin. Even our enemies, by Kingdom standards, are to be objects of our love and prayers (Matthew 5:43-47).

 

With these points in mind, let me suggest some ways to protect yourself from sinful anger while benefiting from righteous anger.

 

  1. Allow God to evaluate your anger to determine if it is rightful or sinful. Rightful anger will demonstrate these qualities:[ii]
    a. It will react against actual sin, not just perceived sin that you sense due to your own agendas and preferences, but actual violations of Scripture.
    b. It focuses on God’s concern, not your own concern.
    c. It is accompanied by other godly qualities, such as love, patience, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
    d. It moves quickly toward a peaceful resolution, not leaving room for bitterness.

 

*A good diagnostic question to ask is “What am I loving so much right now that my heart is moved to feel angry?” Tim Keller writes, “If you ask that question, if you do this analysis, more often than not you’ll immediately be embarrassed, because many, many times the thing you’re defending is your ego, your pride, your self-esteem.”[iii]

 

  1. Be quick to repent of sinful anger.
    a. Recognize “fights and quarrels” are generally rooted in our own sinful desires (James 4:1-3). Consider what you may be wrongfully desiring more than the Lord.
    b. Receive God’s forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:8-10).

 

  1. Allow rightful anger to guide you to godly action.
    a. Be sure you are not overreacting and consider overlooking the offense. (“A man’s wisdom yields patience, and it is to his glory to overlook an offense” – Proverbs 19:11; “It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel – Proverbs 20:3).
    b. Be sure to remove the log in your own eye before judging the speck in another’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5).
    c. Lovingly and humbly confront those who have sinned, with a readiness to forgive as the Lord forgave you.
    d. Go after the problem not the person.[iv]
    e. Be sure your goal is peace, not punishment (Romans 12:18-19).

 

  1. On a societal level, when confronting injustice, leverage righteous anger as a force for good.
    a. Continue lamenting to God and trust Him to hear your cries.
    b. Seek to be as informed as possible about the issues and the people who are being affected.
    c. Appeal to authorities about injustice (Paul did this in Acts 25:9-12 to avoid unjust trial). Take peaceful and loving action.
    d. Support churches and ministries that are committed to the gospel, sound doctrine, and biblical values as they make a difference in confronting injustice (1 Timothy 4:15-16).
    e. Share the gospel in order to address the root problem of sin and separation from God (Romans 1:16, Ephesians 2:14-18).

 

May God guard us from sinful anger and use any righteous anger we feel to further His holy purposes in our world. May we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God as we become more and more like Jesus together (Micah 6:8, Romans 12:1-2).

 



[i] Twenty different Hebrew words in the Old Testament are used to indicate God’s indignation against evil. The most common of the words is used more than 200 times in reference to God’s anger. Robert D. Jones, Uprooting Anger, 18.

[ii] Adapted from Robert D. Jones, Uprooting Anger, 29.

[iii] Quoted in “What our Anger is Telling Us” by Jonathan Parnell. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-our-anger-is-telling-us

[iv] In a message called “The Healing of Anger,” Tim Keller shares this principle and recommends focusing on a “surgical strike” that hates the sin but loves the sinner.

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The Role of Righteous Anger in Christians

April 21, 2022 | Michael Foster