Anger in the Bible: Righteous Anger or Sin?
The first time we come across anger in the Bible is in Genesis 4, where God has shown his approval of Abel’s sacrifice and his disapproval of Cain’s. We don’t know specifically why God approved of the one and not of the other, but we do see Cain’s reaction to this: Anger.
God then asks Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?” and follows up that question with a warning in verse 7, that “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” The sin God is referring to is not the anger, but the anger certainly did precede it. Sin did indeed follow Cain’s anger when he murdered his own brother.
Righteous Anger in the Bible
The Old Testament is full of verses about anger, and most often the person whose anger is in view is the Lord Himself. At other times it is God’s representative who is angry on his behalf. If God is perfect and without sin and he gets angry, then it stands to reason that being angry is in and of itself not a sin.
It would be helpful to look at some of the reasons that the Lord gets angry:
After the Exodus, while Moses was up on the mountain meeting with God, the Israelites convinced Aaron to make them an idol to worship. Here we see “Moses’s anger burned hot” against Israel when he discovered them dancing around the golden calf. In Deuteronomy 9 we see that Moses had been “afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against [them] so that he was ready to destroy [them].”
God demands the exclusive worship of his people. One of the primary reasons for God’s anger is his desire for faithfulness from his people. In Deuteronomy 6:14-15, Israel is warned to not pursue other gods, “for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God, lest the anger of your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.”
And God later became angry with Solomon “because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel” (1 Ki 11:9). In Jeremiah 44:8 it is again idolatry that provokes God to anger.
Profaning what is holy
In Joshua 7:1 God’s anger burns against the people of Israel when some among them “broke faith in regard to the devoted things” by stealing from the spoils of battle that were to have been devoted (or kept holy) to God. Here we see it is appropriate to feel anger at the profaning of what God has declared holy.
When God’s people are threatened
When God’s people in Jabesh-Gilead were being threatened by the Ammonites, we see that “the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul…and his anger was greatly kindled” (1Sam 11:6).
Injustice and debauchery
The prophets are full of examples of things that caused God to be angry with Israel as they warned of the coming day of the Lord’s anger. When Isaiah says that the anger of the Lord is kindled against his people (Isaiah 5:25), it is in the context of his warnings against their idolatry, injustice, and debauchery. This shows us that there are things, like injustice, to which anger is an appropriate response.
At the end, when Israel is exiled from the promised land it is attributed to the fact that God “poured out his hot anger, and he kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations” (Lamentations 4:11). But as much as God’s anger is the reason Israel was exiled from the land, we see a promise from God, that he “will not be angry forever” (Jeremiah 3:12).
Having seen that God himself gets angry and that if his anger is not sinful then it is not necessarily wrong if we feel angry about these kinds of things, it is also necessary to look at God’s actions in response to his feelings of anger. Another frequently repeated truth in the Bible is that the Lord is slow to anger.
Verses about Anger in the Bible
When the Israelites were supposed to enter the promised land, but they rebelled against the Lord’s command because they were frightened by the report of the spies, the Lord said to Moses “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (v11).
God was ready to strike them down and disinherit them, and to start over with Moses. But Moses intercedes for them, and appeals to God’s character, being “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty…” and God relents and does not destroy them outright as a result.
Jonah is a prophet who God sent to preach to his enemies, but instead, he ran in the opposite direction. When he finally does take God’s message to them, they repent, and Jonah is angry. He complains to God that the very reason he didn’t want to go preach to his enemy is that he “knew that [he is] a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
Micah 7:18The prophet Micah, who warned about God’s coming judgment, also spoke of the hope that they could have because of God’s compassionate nature. He asks, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.”
After Nahum speaks of how the Lord will take vengeance on his enemies, he reminds his readers that “the Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.”
God is the only righteous judge; as such he is the only one who can mete out righteous judgment, and he will not let the guilty go unpunished. However, overwhelmingly we see that God’s anger is restrained. He is slow to get angry and gives time for people to repent. Even those who set themselves up as his enemies may find compassion and forgiveness if they repent.
Wisdom on Anger
In this same manner, the wisdom literature prizes the person who is slow to anger. This person is described as “better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32). Proverbs also tells us that “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (14:29).
The teacher in Ecclesiastes advises the reader not to be “quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools” (7:9). Thus, it is wise to imitate God in his patience and being slow to anger, because it is foolishness to give in to your temper.
Instead, we are advised to be angry, but not to sin, and rather “ponder in your own hearts on your beds and be silent” (Psalm 4:4). Our response to feelings of anger should not be rash but should be quiet and thoughtful.
When interacting with others, we are advised that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). We should be slow to anger so that we are able instead to respond with grace.
Anger in the New Testament
Having read in the Old Testament that in certain circumstances anger is appropriate, but that we should still be slow to anger in the same way that God is slow to anger, it may seem at surface reading that Jesus is contradicting that idea. When speaking about the Old Testament law against murder, he goes further to say that “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22).
But as we believe that the Bible is a unified whole and does not contradict itself, it seems that Jesus is speaking here about unrestrained anger. This is made clearer by the fact that he elaborates with the examples of “whoever insults his brother” and “whoever says ‘You fool!’” being the people who will be subject to the judgment, both of the council and God.
Following Jesus’s example, the apostle Paul lists anger (or fits of anger – Galatians 5:20) among the various works of the flesh that need to be avoided by God’s people (2 Corinthians 12:20, Galatians 5:20, Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8). Instead, we are to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Fathers are not to provoke their children to anger, but to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Not only should we not give in to our feelings of anger, but we should not be causing others, especially our children, to be provoked to anger.
Paul echoes the Psalmist as he calls on us to “Be angry and do not sin,” but he adds that we should not let the sun go down on our anger (Ephesians 4:26). We shouldn’t let our anger linger long before we resolve it.
James also echoes the wisdom literature calling for every person to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of a man does not produce the righteousness that God requires” (1:19-20). As we do not have the benefit of God’s perfect wisdom and righteousness, we should be even more hesitant to act on our feelings of anger.
In 1 Timothy Paul reminds men to pray “lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (2:8) suggesting that these things may hinder their prayers.
Anger itself is not a sin, but the strong emotion, unrestrained, can lead very quickly to sin. As God said to Cain, “It’s desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). In the same way, we must not let our feelings of anger lead us into sin, but we must master them and restrain them so that like God we can be slow to anger and abounding in love and compassion.
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