No plague has cost the human race more dear.
~ Seneca the Younger (Romans Philosopher, 4BC-65AD), De Ira (On Anger)
I offer this observation: our world is full of good-hearted people who are pursuing God-honouring goals but doing it in soul-damaging ways. That’s what happens when we pursue justice, righteousness, holiness, and any societal change via today’s zeitgeist of anger and outrage.
Thankfully, Jesus offers us a better way.
The New Testament has two Greek words that refer to anger and outrage: ORGÉ (sounds like “or-gay”) is the common word for anger or wrath (usually translated “anger” when referring to humans and “wrath” when referring to God); and THUMOS (sounds like “thoo-mos”) which is an intensified outburst of anger or rage, literally referring to the snorting of an upset animal.
[Fun Fact: the New Testament writers combined this second word, THUMOS, with HOMO, meaning sameness or oneness, to create the word HOMOTHUMADON, meaning a passionate rage for unity or oneness, and they used this word to describe the early church! May Christians today manifest a fighting, snorting, passionate rage for unity!]
Now, as we study the Bible on the topic of anger, we see something fascinating. A clear pattern emerges: in the Bible, anger is always righteous when attributed to God and (almost) always unrighteous when attributed to humans. There are few, if any, exceptions. This is worth unpacking.
Here is an overview of the biblical data on anger and outrage:
FIRST: The Old Testament cautions against the destructive power of anger/wrath. As far as emotions go, anger seems too hot to handle, too bold to hold (unless you’re God).
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
~ King David (Psalm 37:8)
Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools.
~ King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:9)
SECOND: Jesus intensifies this warning by equating anger with murder (just as he will go on to equate sexual lust with adultery).
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
~ Jesus (Matthew 5:21-22)
THIRD: The apostle Paul repeatedly includes anger and outrage as items on his “vice lists” – those lists of sins that Christians should do away with.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:31)
But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
~ The apostle Paul (Colossians 3:8; also see 2 Corinthians 12:20-21; Galatians 5:19-21)
FOURTH: “Righteous anger” is a myth.
Doesn’t the Bible talk about “righteous anger” for us? No actually, it doesn’t. This is a strange sub-Christian meme that proves the point: if you hear something repeated often enough in the Church, you will eventually assume it’s in the Bible. But it isn’t in the Bible. And, you should know, adding the word “righteous” in front of something doesn’t make that wrong thing right. So stop it.
There is one verse where the apostle Paul does use a word translated “indignation” as a positive thing for the Church, (The term “righteous indignation”, just like “righteous anger”, isn’t in the Bible, but maybe this s the passage some people are thinking of):
See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.
~ The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 7:11)
The Greek word behind “indignation” (AGANAKTĔO) is not one of the usual Greek words for anger and outrage. The word means to be upset, but points toward being agitated by grief rather than rage. Literally, this word means “to grieve greatly” and speaks of a kind of grieving that is so strong it motivates action. If you want to practice righteous indignation, learn to lean into your grief. (More about this shortly.)
It should be obvious that anger can never be a good or useful feeling, but how often—almost always—do we try to justify it, calling it indignation and anticipating some benefit from it.
~ Leo Tolstoy
FIFTH: The apostle James sums it all up.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
~ James the brother of Jesus (James 1:19-20)
It’s true, James says that we should be “slow to become angry” which leaves the possibility open that, as long as we’re slow to get there, anger might be okay in some situations. Maybe. Let’s leave that door open a crack for now. And let us also admit that this way of thinking is more often used as an excuse to justify “righteous anger” as acceptable when that is not the thrust of this passage or any biblical passage on the topic. It just isn’t James’ point (or Paul’s or Jesus’). We’ve been told and now we know: disciples of Jesus should “get rid of all” anger (Paul) because anger is like murder (Jesus) and human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James).
WHY THE DOUBLE STANDARD?
Why is anger always appropriate for God and inappropriate for us? Good question. And here’s a good answer: Because anger (wrath) is the emotion that the Bible associates with judgement. And God is the judge; we are not.
God is a righteous judge,
a God who displays his wrath every day.
~ King David (Psalm 7:11)
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
~ The apostle Paul (Romans 12:19)
JESUS & ANGER
“But wait a minute Bruxy, what about Jesus in the temple? Jesus gets angry, so why can’t we?” I can appreciate this mental maneuver our minds make on this topic. We want to take our cues from Jesus. Good. And, although the Bible never says Jesus is angry when he clears the temple (good guess though) it does say he gets angry on another occasion in reaction to religious hypocrisy (Mark 3:5).
So why is it okay for Jesus to get angry and yet Jesus teaches that for everyone else anger is like murder?
Remember we’ve noticed that the Bible consistently teaches that anger is right for God and wrong for us because anger is the emotion associated with judgement. And there it is. Jesus is God, and when we see Jesus we are seeing God.
The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.
~ Jesus (John 12:45)
Yes, most of the time Jesus gives us an example to follow. We are meant to be God-like in how we love. But we are not meant to be God-like in how we judge. (Adam and Eve learned this lesson the hard way when they reached for the wrong tree, and we’ve been paying for it ever since.) Sometimes Jesus shows us God in all his glory, as King and Lord and Judge over all. And on those occasions, we don’t follow his example, we simply stand in awe and worship. For example…
When Jesus was twelve years old, he pulled a “Home Alone” stunt and stayed behind in the big city of Jerusalem, leaving his parents to worry and search for him (see Luke 2:41-50). I don’t know about you, but I never used this episode in the life of Christ as a teaching example for my daughters. “Now girls, as long as your mother and I eventually find you at a local church, feel free to secretly run away any time we’re in a big city, just like Jesus.” Nope.
And when Jesus receives worship from his disciples (as he does in Matthew 28:17), Jesus never turns the event into a lesson about how we too can all receive worship, just like Jesus. Nope.
And when Jesus clears the temple, he doesn’t invite his disciples to join him in the judgement. “Come on boys! Grab a table and give’r a flip! Then you too can be just like Jesus!” Nope.
Yes, Jesus got angry because God gets angry, and that is righteous. Jesus is the judge. God is the judge. And we are not. Let’s not get fuzzy on this point.
HOW TO BE ANGRY AND NOT SIN
There is one passage in the Bible that gives us hope that it may be possible to be angry and yet not sin. The apostle Paul shows us the way.
“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.
~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:26-27)
Paul quotes a common (mis)interpretation of Psalm 4:4 which in the Hebrew original reads “Tremble [i.e., in the fear and awe of God] and do not sin.” The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew text) translated this trembling as anger, which became the popular understanding in Paul’s day.
So Paul goes with that and says “Okay friends, here is how you can be angry and yet not sin. (Everyone leans in.) Are you ready? (Heads are nodding.) Here it is… (Long pause. Building anticipation.)… In order to be angry and not sin… (Wait for it)… In order to be angry and yet not sin… (Deep Breath)… Get rid of it. Yup. Right away. Don’t even let the sun set before you get rid of your anger.” And as if that isn’t motivation enough, Paul adds, “Because let me tell you, if you hold onto your anger, you are welcoming in the Devil.”
Recap! The best (only?) way to be angry and not sin is to get rid of your anger ASAP. And if you don’t, you are inviting Satan into your life.
And this, friends, is the most positive teaching on the topic human anger in the entire Bible. That’s it. That’s all. There ain’t no more. It is possible to be angry and not sin, as long as we are working to rid ourselves of it rather than embracing it. And just in case there is any ambiguity, only a few verses later in the same chapter, Paul puts anger and outrage right back on another of his sin lists.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:31)
In light of the consistent and clear teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus himself, and the early church leaders, you can understand the importance for Christians to take a counter-cultural stand on this issue. We live in a world where anger and outrage are the emotions du jour in the pursuit of social justice and societal change. As Christ-followers, we care about being salt and light for our world around us (Matthew 5:13-16). We care about being change agents for the better. And so for us who are justice-minded, the Devil has one more trick up his sleeve. Satan will tempt us to take our cues from others in the world around us who are working for that same positive change. But we have something different to bring to the movement. We bring not only a desire for things being put right, but also a commitment to the way we pursue that justice. We practice practical love of neighbour, love of enemy, love of all. And, at least for humans, this means we relinquish our right to anger as motivation for action.
BUT ISN’T ANGER A NORMAL HUMAN EMOTION?
Yes. Absolutely. Anger is a natural and normal human emotion. Anger will arise naturally within us in a variety of difficult, frustrating, and painful situations. And this initial experience of anger is not the real problem. We learn from the writers of Scripture that when anger does arise naturally, we can overcome it supernaturally. As we are filled with the Spirit and walk with the Spirit, we will experience more or the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Note: anger is not on the list. But it is on the contrasting vice list, the “deeds of the flesh”, that are listed a couple of verses earlier to contrast the Spirit’s work in our lives.
Perhaps anger (which Jesus says is internalized murder) is similar to lust (which Jesus says is internalized adultery). There may be a transferable lesson here. Both are natural human emotional experiences. The initial impulses of being upset with someone or being sexually attracted to someone are not the sin of anger or lust, but the temptation to sin. So, when we admit “I’m so angry” we might not be confessing sin as much as admitting an internal experience which may or may not turn into sin, depending on where we go from there.
What matters to God is what we do with what we feel in those moments.
Do we fan into flame our sexual attraction to another and thereby dehumanize them, using them to feed our lust? That is sin. Likewise, do we justify our growing anger as godly motivation for our pursuit of justice, pouring fuel on the fire of our judgementalism? That is also sin.
Experiencing anger welling up within us is not sin but temptation to sin. Now notice the danger that surrounds us: we live in a world that continually encourages us to nurture and cultivate that anger in order to motivate us to fight for justice. I understand this and it makes sense from the perspective of the kingdoms of this world. But this is not the way of the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of heaven on earth. Let’s be clear minded about where our citizenship truly lies.
RELIGION & ANGER
When the apostle Paul warns the Colossian Christians about sin in Colossians 3, he breaks his vice list into two sub-lists. The first includes more universally human sins (sexual impurity, greed, etc). Then he addresses a second sub-list of sins that will especially tempt believers, and that’s the list that includes anger and outrage. Religious people will be more tempted to play the role of angry judges.
It was a religious frustration that led to Cain’s anger and the first murder (Genesis 4:6). And ever since, religion has enflamed rather than calmed the anger of its adherents. I used to see this most clearly in the more conservative expressions of Christianity. Angry preaching and outraged moral pontificating were something I left behind for the gentleness of the Spirit. But now I’m seeing the same addiction to anger in more progressive forms of Christianity as well. It is fascinating how much conservative fundamentalism and progressive fundamentalism have in common. Legalism, judgementalism, and outraged outcry have become commonplace and even expected if we want our fight against injustice to be taken seriously. And I want no part of that.
We are not ultimately helping human society get healthy if we are simultaneously doing damage to the human soul.
I said earlier that initial anger welling up within is not necessarily sin but merely the temptation to sin. True. And anger might also be something more: a signal that something needs attention.
Psychologists tell us that anger and grief are closely linked emotions. (Notice that anger is usually listed as one of the stages of grief.) Anger can act like a warning light on a car’s dashboard, alerting us to something under the hood that needs attention. Wisdom suggests we pay attention to that light and address the undealt with sorrow and mourning that might be at the root. In this regard, anger is a gift and we should pay attention to what it is telling us. What would be unwise (and will lead to sin) would be joining a cultural trend to celebrate and sacralise these warning signals as important attributes to a healthy automobile. Anger is not that. Anger must never be treated like the fuel that runs the church, our lives, our movement, or our ministry.
The issue is, in part, a matter of where we focus our attention. Sorrow, sadness, and grief are similar to anger and outrage, but without the infusion of judgement (see Romans 12:15; 1 Corinthians 12:15; 2 Corinthians 7:11). If you are chronically angry, ask God to help you transmute your anger into grieving. Sorrow places our attention on the victims; anger fixates our attention on the victimizer. Sorrow empathizes with the oppressed; anger judges the oppressor. Sorrow and anguish allow us to bear the burdens of our brethren (Galatians 6:2); anger and outrage obsess with the source of the burden. (Yes, we should work to alleviate these burdens, but not via the way of anger, which will shift our primary focus away from empathizing with people in pain. More about that in a moment.)
If you have experienced significant pain in your life which has led you to anger and outrage, do not be shamed by the teaching of Jesus. Leaving you feeling guilty and helpless is not his goal, nor mine. Rather, see what Jesus and the other early church leaders are saying as a kind of diagnosis that gives you the opportunity to move toward the cure. If we’re honest, most of us don’t want to stay angry. We sense its corrosive effects in our hearts. We want to move past this. And Jesus’ way of love, compassion, and forgiveness will help you do that. Yes, full blown anger is sin and corrosive to our souls. And the good news is, Jesus is in the sin-forgiving, soul-saving, heart-curing business. You’ve come to the right place.
My guess is, if anger and outrage have been your go-to emotion for motivation to act in this world, it will take time and the support of fellow followers of Jesus to retrain our hearts. Don’t go underground with it. Don’t suppress, repress, or bury it in order to appear spiritual. Be open and honest with at least some mature members of your spiritual family about your most difficult struggles. I think the apostle James is getting at this when he tells believers not to supress but to confess:
So confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
~ The apostle James (James 5:16)
Healing is the goal. Loving, honest, praying community is the way. This is good news for our spiritual family – there is healing ahead.
GOOD NEWS: LOVE IS ENOUGH
Sometimes when I point out these Jesusy truths to fellow Christians, their reaction is telling. I hear things like, “But Bruxy, if you’re saying anger is not appropriate, then what’s going to motivate us to work for change?” First of all, this isn’t my idea. I’m just the message boy. I’m trying to faithfully share what Jesus taught, which I believe will always leave us better off, if we have ears to hear. Even more telling, the very question itself reveals how much we have bonded with the way of the world.
What is going to motivate us? The answer is simple – it is simply love.
Love is the will to work for the wellbeing of a person. Love is the experience and expression of an attitude of awe and honour. Love is the awesome energy that created this universe. And love entered our world in the form of Jesus. Love is not an emotional reaction, but a willful and wonderful decision to initiate and express good. Love is the strongest force in this universe, because love is the DNA of the Divine, the very guts of God. Love is the way of Jesus. And so, love is enough.
So I say it again loudly, to my brothers and sisters at the back – Whatever it is that anger and outrage are helping you accomplish, love will do a better job.
FOR FURTHER STUDY…
- Dan White Jr., Love Over Fear: Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, & Healing Our Polarized World
- Jared Byas, Love Matters More: How Fighting To Be Right Keeps Us From Loving Like Jesus
- Brant Hansen, Unoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better