I grew up believing that anger was a bad emotion. But the more my relationship with God grew, the more I began to believe the opposite. Well, sort of. More specifically, I began to see that there are two kinds of anger and that knowing the difference is important.
I now understand that anger is an emotion that God built into us when He created us in His image. Therefore, it’s OK to be angry—so long as it’s for the right reasons and it’s handled in the right way. Thankfully, God’s Word showcases both kinds of anger and sets clear parameters for getting ticked off.
Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin”; thus, it’s obvious that there is such a thing as righteous anger as well as sinful anger. Let’s look at both.
Sinful anger centers on self. It typically results when we feel hurt, disappointed, betrayed, or rejected. Any perceived injustice can result in sinful anger, even if the injustice isn’t real. When we take offense, anger is usually not far behind. True injustice can also result in sinful anger if it isn’t processed properly. I was recently betrayed by a close friend, which led to my spewing out angry words and harsh treatment. I’m sorry to say that my anger was anything but righteous. Yes, even now, I’m still learning to “hate the sin, not the sinner.”
Sinful anger can leave us exasperated and frustrated. We may feel “sour”—even in the pit of our stomach. Sinful anger can produce cynicism and distrust. We may even claim, “I have a right to be angry!” And that may be true. Perhaps we were treated unfairly. The question is this: Is your anger righteous?
You see, sinful anger alienates us from God and other people. It’s characterized by self-focus, not godly grief over evil. And it erodes our desire to pray as we roll the situation over and over in our minds.
Anger that causes us to sin is more concerned with people (often ourselves) than with God (see James 1:20). Honestly, there have been times when I’ve gotten angrier over a minor inconvenience than a grievous injustice. At times, we can get angrier over our damaged pride than we do over the marring of God’s character.
Perhaps we become self-righteously angry, like the older brother in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, who responded very angrily to his father’s special treatment of this irresponsible brother (Luke 15:28). Or maybe we’re selfishly angry like Jonah over the demise of a plant while not caring about the end result for 120,000 people (Jonah 4:9–11)!
There’s a good reason to heed Paul’s admonition to avoid sinful anger. We have a very real enemy, Satan, who loves to take advantage of unresolved anger in an attempt to cause us to pick up slander, gossip, strife, disunity, bitterness, or even physical violence. Satan knows what we often forget: anger can produce myriad kinds of sin.
Essentially, righteous anger is being angry at what makes God angry. When it comes to anger, the “righteous” part should always come first, because God’s anger is a byproduct of His righteousness.
Evil twists and distorts God’s glory, profaning what is most holy about Him. So when our anger is righteous, we will be angry over the evil that perverts God’s goodness and holiness. This is precisely the case with an acquaintance of mine, who recently shared with me her great anger at finding out a relative had just been arrested for child pornography—including having some inappropriate pictures of her grandchildren! While it’s a huge struggle for her, she’s taking her anger to God because she doesn’t want her anger to become sinful.
So, in righteous anger, we join God in His anger over evil. This is anger we feel with God, not at God or at others. Remember: hate the sin, not the sinner. Righteous anger is actually a loving,
deep displeasure over the way such evil defames God and hurts other people. In time, righteous anger will bear redemptive fruit as it guides us toward movements of faith, love, and true justice.
Godly anger is not rude, arrogant, or dishonoring (1 Corinthians 13:4, 5), and it does not seek revenge (Romans 12:19). Righteous anger will always move us toward prayer, unlike sinful anger, which causes us to avoid prayer. Righteous anger cannot help but pray.
As with many examples we read in the Bible, experiencing righteous anger moves us to godly action. Moses became angry when he descended the mountain after being with God and saw the extent of Israel’s sin (Exodus 32:1–20). Being with God causes us to have His heart, which includes His anger over sin. Because Moses had been in the presence of the Lord, he was no longer complacent about the people’s sin.
Righteous anger demands justice
The fact is that if we don’t experience righteous anger over genuine injustice, we’ll become complacent and perhaps even apathetic about it, which results in no action and mere tolerance. A lack of righteous anger is allowing evil to flourish in society today. If God’s people don’t take a stand, who will? Righteous anger should always move us to biblical action. James 4:17 tells us, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” Righteous anger void of biblical action is sin.
Righteous anger should always be governed by love. When Jesus entered the temple and drove out those who bought and sold in the temple, He also overturned the tables of the money changers (John 2:13–22). It’s important to note that while Jesus did possibly harm a few tables, He did not harm a single person. The purpose of His anger was torestore the lives of those who would listen. Jesus’ desire was not to harm but to draw attention to the unrighteousness taking place in the temple.
Righteous anger is always under emotional control. Even at the cross, Jesus maintained control over His emotions. He was frequently treated unjustly, but He always forgave those who were against Him.
As Christ’s followers, we should be angry over all forms of abuse, sex trafficking, racism, pornography, adultery, and oppression. If something angers God, we should be angered by it as well. Or, are we, like the saints in Corinth, more willing to accommodate sin than we are to condemn it and remove it from our midst (1 Corinthians 5)? We have a choice to make.
How to be angry
If we want to develop righteous anger in our lives, we must first identify any sin that exists in our anger and repent of it. Then we should commit James 1:19, 20 to memory and begin to live it out in our lives: “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.” Of course, evils require an immediate, godly response (Proverbs 24:11).
While we will never be perfectly angry while on this imperfect planet, we can grow into the grace of righteous anger. And, thankfully, God’s Word offers us so much practical help. Romans 12:17–19 is a gem: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 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.”
When we follow biblical principles, righteous fruit will be the result. But anger not righteously expressed will only bring further destruction. The marriage of two good Christian friends of mine is currently in the latter stages of divorce for this very reason. May our anger always lead us to take redemptive action, as Jesus’ anger did.
Don’t allow yourself to become angry over things that don’t anger God. Refuse to be offended. Far too much of our anger stems from pride. Ask God to give you a heart after His that enables you to be angry only at the things that anger Him. Then ask Him how He’d like you to respond. The action He wants you to take may not look like the action He wants someone else to take in a similar situation.
For example, when I got righteously angry about the sex trafficking business, I felt God wanted me to raise awareness about it in my local sphere of influence. As I did this, I also raised money to help those on the front lines of the battle. So that our anger doesn’t consume us, it’s important to stay in communication with God about it and follow His leading.
We cannot claim our anger is “righteous” if everything about it doesn’t line up with God’s Word and character. And we most certainly cannot justify it if it causes us to sin. We must always ask ourselves, Do I want to be right or to be righteous?
No matter how reprehensible the circumstances, we are never justified in sinning by our responses. The heart of the Father should always be the reason for the anger we experience and express.
Tammy Darling is the author of 1,400 published articles and two books, And She Danced and While We Wait: Devotions for the Adopting Parent. She writes from her home in rural Pennsylvania.