IS MY ANGER WRONG?
I want to lead us through a careful examination of the Bible on the topic of anger. We frequently assume that our understanding on a topic is consistent with God’s until we look more closely at Scripture. Let’s begin with a short statement from Jesus’ brother, James. In James 1:20, we read, “for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” James indicates, in no uncertain terms, that man’s anger does not advance God’s desire. If it does not accomplish God’s righteousness, how can it ever be justified? Matthew Henry says, about this verse, “Wrath is a human thing, and the wrath of man stands opposed to the righteousness of God.”
James refers to the anger of man. Is it possible that my anger rises from the work of God in my heart and is therefore justified? It usually feels like it is righteous. Consider Galatians 5:16-23:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
In this passage, Paul lists the fruit of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. He points out the mutually exclusive character of each force in our lives by saying that “the flesh sets its desires against the Spirit.” In the deeds of the flesh Paul lists outbursts of anger. Anger is not a work of God’s Spirit in our lives. Instead, anger sets its desire against that of God’s Spirit.
Consider these two parallel passages.
Ephesians 4:31, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
Colossians 3:8, “But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.”
In these two passages, we are instructed to put aside all anger and wrath. It is of great importance to note that Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, tells us to set aside all wrath and anger. He could have left out the word “all” and simply said “put aside anger and wrath.” Had he chosen to do so, we might properly conclude that anger in general is bad but on occasion it is acceptable. When the Spirit led Paul to write “all” anger and wrath, He removed that option. God has told us to remove all anger and wrath from our lives.
Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and yet do not sin…” It seems, at first glance, that Paul is commanding us to be angry at times. A.T. Robertson rightly notes that this is a “permissive imperative, not a command to be angry.” This is why the translators of the NIV chose to word this verse, “In your anger do not sin.”
This interpretation makes the most sense when we consider the context. If the verse is indeed commanding us to be angry, it seems to violate Paul’s words five verses later, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Why would Paul command anger, only to tell us to remove it? That does not seem consistent with the flow of the passage.
So what does Paul mean? Look at the context again. Paul says “Be angry and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Regardless of our interpretation about the rightness of anger, we must concede that the end of verse 26 commands us to remove the anger in our lives before the end of the day. In the very verse that we find a possible command to anger, we find God telling us to set it aside quickly. Verse 27 tells us why we need to get rid of anger quickly, “and do not give the devil an opportunity.” Holding on to the anger allows the devil to move in our hearts and reap destruction. Why would God command us to be angry, when anger provides the devil an opportunity in our lives? It is as if God commanded Adam and Eve to spend the day meditating on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They should smell it, touch its fruit, but they should not actually eat it. Would the God we ask to “lead us not into temptation” actually command us to flirt with sin? I do not think so. James 1:13 tells us, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.”
As Paul continues his thoughts in Ephesians 4, I think we find the solution to the dilemma. In verse 28 Paul addresses “him who steals,” and tells him to stop and find something useful to do. In verse 29 He tells us to not speak unwholesomely, but with grace. In the two verses that follow our text, Paul gives a pattern. He tells us to set aside a particular sin by choosing a good deed instead. I am convinced that Paul started that pattern in verse 26. He addresses three sins: anger, stealing and harmful words. In each, he mentions its presence in our lives and gives us clear instruction to remove it. To strengthen this instruction, he continues in verse 30 to exhort us to not grieve the Spirit of God. In verses 31-32, Paul expands the idea by telling us to put aside a whole list of objectionable actions and replace them with the good of kindness, tenderheartedness and forgiveness. By looking at the whole section, I think we can understand that Paul does not encourage anger. On the contrary, he gives us a strategy to remove its destructive power from our lives.
One more New Testament passage deserves our attention, Matthew 5:21-22:
You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
In this passage, Jesus points out that according to the accepted law of the day, murder leaves a person “liable to the court.” He reminds His hearers of the culpability of one who murders another. That culpability is presented as being “liable to the court.” Jesus then states that one who is angry is guilty before the court. In the Greek text, the wording is identical as Jesus describes the culpability. Both the murderer and the one who is angry is liable to the court. His point is that anger is a form of murder. He offers no qualifying circumstances which could make some murder justifiable. Instead, Jesus gives the pattern followed throughout the New Testament, that our anger is not a godly trait but is instead an expression of the flesh and therefore sinful.
What about the Old Testament? Let’s look at the books of Psalms and Proverbs to see what the wisdom literature tells us about anger.
The New American Standard Bible uses the words anger and angry fifty-four times in these two books. “Anger” is used forty-five times while “angry” is used nine times. In the book of Psalms, which uses the words the most, we find only three times that the words refer to the anger of man. The rest of the time, anger is an emotion attached to God. Twice, anger refers to the anger of our enemies, who are assumed to be wicked. The third usage is found in Psalm 37:8, where David declares that we ought to “cease from anger, and forsake wrath; Do not fret, it leads only to evildoing.”
The book of Proverbs uses these words fifteen times. Four times it refers to the anger of authorities. Twice it speaks of avoiding another person’s anger. The remaining nine uses speak of the anger of man. In every occasion, anger is viewed as negative, and being slow to anger as a good thing. Anger is connected to folly, strife, and punishment. Controlling our anger requires great understanding. It pacifies contention and is an expression of strength. Wise men leave anger behind and do not associate with those given to anger. The virtue of being slow to anger is extolled throughout the book. This makes sense because God calls Himself “slow to anger” at least nine different times in the Old Testament.
A brief study of anger in the Old Testament reveals the same conclusion that we draw from the New Testament. The anger of man does not accomplish God’s purposes but rather is an expression of folly. Of course, there are instances in the Bible in which God says that He is angry. In one instance, Mark 3:5, Jesus is said to be angry. From this we conclude that there is a possibility of righteous anger. It is important to note that God is perfect and incapable of sin. We are not. What is possible for God may in fact be beyond our ability in our current sinful state. The profusion of warnings about anger and commands to remove all anger from our lives should cause us to be suspicious of our anger when it rises in our hearts. In fact, as we will see later, the presence of anger can be a clear indicator of faulty thinking and misplaced faith. If our first expectation about our anger is that it is wrong, we are more likely to recognize and alter our wrong thinking.
If we are to learn to control our anger, we must begin by accepting God’s perspective that anger is ordinarily inappropriate for the Christian. Instead we need to understand what role anger plays in our lives. Anger, like the other negative emotions, is a warning light. It tells us that we are not thinking and believing truth. If I accept that anger is wrong, I will more readily stop myself when I feel anger and take the steps to change.
(This is a portion of Chapter one from The Train: A Model for Transforming the Heart Available on Amazon)