A quick read of the news on any given day shows that the emotion of anger is rampant in our country these days. People are angry about everything from being cooped up at home for long periods of time to politics to social injustice. Anger issues have become so prevalent that they has become unremarkable.
How is the Christian to think about an emotion that on the one hand is something that God Himself expresses (Exodus 4:14, Mark 3:5), and on the other hand incurs numerous warnings (Psalm 4:4, Ecclesiastes 7:9, James 1:19-20), appearing in several lists of sins to be purged from one’s heart (Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8)?To answer that question, we must first recognize and acknowledge that the Bible never does and never can contradict itself. Because it is the Word of God, it is completely without conflict or error. This is crucial because without this recognition we come to the Bible as its judges, rather than its humble servants.
When we allow the Bible to instruct us, we see that the biblical teaching about anger is more nuanced than simply calling anger bad or good. We can see this in Ephesians 4:26, for example, which says, “Be angry and do not sin.” This implies that one can be angry without sin, or to put it another way, anger may be either righteous or unrighteous.
It may surprise some people to learn that the Old Testament is filled with examples of God becoming angry. Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt, the Children of Israel (to name only a few) were all objects of His anger over their sin. In the New Testament, we even see our Lord Jesus becoming angry at the unbelief of those around Him.
God is unable to sin, so if anger were sinful, He would never become angry. This highlights the important truth that in itself, anger is not sinful. Rather, anger is a God-given emotion that when used properly can be a valid response to injustice and evil in this world.
It is just here, however, that we must make a distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger, or put another way, between holy and sinful anger. As mentioned above, Ephesians 4:26 tells us that if we are going to be angry, it must not be a sinful sort of anger.
Righteous and Unrighteous Anger
How can we know if our anger is righteous or not? Here are some questions to ask that will help us decide:
1.Does my anger have a sufficient cause?
Is there is some injustice or sin that is occurring to justify the anger? This requires careful thought about the situation and honest evaluation of the anger to see if it is reasonable. Is the situation one of genuine sin or injustice, or is it merely something that you do not like? If you cannot answer this question in the affirmative, then the anger is almost certainly sinful.
2. Is my anger equal in intensity to its cause?
Even if you can answer the first question in the affirmative, the next question you must ask is whether the anger that you are experiencing is proportionate to what caused it. It is extremely easy for anger to grow out of all proportion to the thing from which it originated. When that happens, even though the anger may have begun as righteous anger, it has now crossed the line into unrighteous or sinful anger.
3. Are you feeding it or is it out of control?
Anger is like fire in that it tends to grow bigger the more you feed it, and anger that is fed can – and nearly always does – grow quickly out of control. If you are feeding it and nurturing it, then it is probable that your anger has moved beyond what is proper. Anger should generally be starved both for our own mental health and for the safety of others. Feeding our anger puts everyone at risk.
4. Does my anger produce thoughts or intentions of revenge?
How many times have you gotten angry and then fantasized about or even tried to find some way to get even? In Romans 12:19 the Apostle Paul says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Whenever we try to get back at someone, we are trying to take away a right that God has reserved for Himself, and our anger has become sinful.
5. Am I ready to forgive?
This may be the hardest question of all, since forgiveness is typically the last thing on our minds when we are angry. However, we are told everywhere in the Bible to have a “tender heart” that is ready to forgive. The Lord Jesus even said that our forgiveness by God is conditioned on our forgiveness of those who sin against us (Matthew 6:14-15). Anger that refuses to forgive has crossed over the line and is no longer righteous.
It should be clear by now that anger, even though it may start as righteous anger, can very easily change into sinful anger. This is because even though the penalty for our sins may be paid for by Christ, we still have remaining sin in our hearts that stains even our best actions and attitudes, and this is especially true with a volatile emotion such as anger.
What safeguards can we put in place to guard against sinful anger? Several passages of Scripture provide answers.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. – Ephesians 4:26
This verse, referenced above, implies that it is possible to be angry and not sin. What the Apostle Paul is telling us is that we are to exercise control over our anger, rather than letting it control us.
One way to do this is by placing a time limit on our anger. Paul tells us that we must not hold onto our anger past sundown. How many of us have gone to bed angry and either not slept well, or woken up to anger that had changed into bitterness? If we permit our anger to linger past sundown we are in sin and our anger is no longer righteous.
In these two passages, we are told to be slow to become angry. Solomon tells us that it is because anger characterizes a fool. This is a sober warning, because the fool in the Old Testament is not merely someone who does dumb things; it is to be a person who attempts to live their life apart from the wisdom and instruction of God and it carries deep moral and spiritual consequences. In other words, to be a fool in the biblical sense is to be the opposite of a follower of God.
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools. – Ecclesiastes 7:9
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. – James 1:19-20
James, referencing the Ecclesiastes passage, expands on it by contrasting quickness to anger with being “quick to hear” and “slow to speak,” giving the additional reason that man’s anger does not bring about God’s righteousness. This is a reminder that even our most pure and righteous anger still falls short of God’s righteousness and has a tendency toward sin in our hearts, and so must be tightly controlled.
Getting Help for Anger Issues
Do you struggle with sinful anger issues? If so, the time to get help is now. Find your pastor or a trusted friend who can help you apply the Word of God to your conscience. If you do not have a pastor or a friend available, a Christian counselor may be right for you. They can come alongside you and help you overcome your tendency toward sinful anger so that you don’t have to struggle alone.
Feel free to contact me or one of the other counselors in the counselor directory to begin anger management counseling so you can learn to get your anger issues under control.
Photo credit: Leah Elliott, copyright 2020, all rights reserved