A Righteous Anger
Emotions are dangerous. They can lead us to behave certain ways, oftentimes to our own demise. Emotions are a helpful supplement when we are navigating our decisions with truth, but can easily lead us astray if we allow them to take the wheel.
Even so, emotions are God-given aspects of life as we know it. Even God shows emotion throughout Scripture, allowing us to better understand His heart. We are naturally emotional beings. So, how do we discern the best use of our emotions, as not to let them control our actions, and our lives?
So is the question we must ask when dealing with the topic of anger. Is it sinful? If so, to what extent? Is it like other emotions?
Anger in and of itself is not sinful. In fact, anger is just as much a natural emotion as happiness and sadness. After all, anger cannot be sinful, because God displays anger toward unrighteousness throughout Scripture (Exodus 32:10–11, Deuteronomy 9:8, Ezekiel 7:8, Isaiah 13:9, Matthew 21:12–13). Because God cannot sin, anger alone cannot be sin.
That is, a righteous anger is not sin, though anger can lead us to act in sin.
The distinction is made clear in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, when he says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26–27).
Be angry. And do not sin. There could not be a clearer line drawn between the two. Anger, while not itself a sin, can easily lead to sin. Why? When we are angry, our emotions are heightened. When this occurs, our behavior tends to be a bit more loose. As a result, we may think, say, and act in ways which are not pleasing to God, but instead give “opportunities” to the Enemy. Lashing out, cursing, becoming violent, holding grudges—these are all wrongful responses to anger, created by allowing the devil to have a foothold in our anger.
What does this look like? What does it mean to be angry with a righteous anger, not sinning while doing so?
Righteous anger is being angry at the things which God is also angry at. God is angry at sin. We ought to also be angered and grieved by our own sin, as well as the sins of the world around us. In fact, this is what many scholars believe the proper interpretation of the second part of the verse is intended to be understood: “do not let the sun go down on your anger” may very well mean “do not stop being angry.”
In other words, our righteous anger—grieving the evils within the world around us—should persist as long as we follow Christ. It is this righteous anger at the sin of the word, as well as our own sin, that is an aspect of a Godly conviction leading to repentance, or turning from that sin.
We are enraged at the thought of a child being raped and abused, and rightly so. We are enraged at the thought of someone hating another because of the color of his or her skin, and rightly so. We are enraged at the thought of hundreds of thousands of innocent babies being slaughtered within their mothers’ wombs each year, and rightly so. We are enraged at these things because of the moral law written on our hearts. We know intuitively, regardless of whether a supreme, moral authority exists or not, that evil acts deserve justice. We know evil exists because good exists, and we are angered by the privation of good. These injustices move us to act, standing up against wrongdoing and being salt and light; examples of a greater good within a crooked world, rightly so.
Jesus displays a righteous anger when he is overcome with zeal for the Temple. Jesus’s words and actions display his heart for truth, and how so many have abandoned it and stomped all over it. Jesus is enraged at the sight of people using the Temple, a symbol of the presence of God, as a marketplace for buying and selling. Upon driving out the people and turning over the tables, we see a brief glimpse into the heart behind the awesome, terrifying wrath of God.
The wrath of God, the perfect and ultimate judgement against wickedness, is the epitome of a righteous anger. Yet, he is merciful and gracious simultaneously. There is no contradiction between the characteristics of God’s grace and His wrath; they go hand-in-hand, complimenting one another. God does not tolerate wickedness; Scripture is clear that he hates it (Psalm 5:5; 11:5).
So, how should we as disciples of Christ live with a righteous anger toward ungodliness? We should be angry, as Paul says, and remain salt and light. A righteous anger does not act in sin, but moves us to act in love all the more.