We live in an angry society, and the reality is that we often watch as that anger is put on display for the world to see. Protests quickly devolve into rioting, threats of violence loom, and we either turn a blind eye to it or we applaud the efforts. In some senses what we can find is that we glorify anger. It, after all, is entrenched in so many of the stories that tell, the movies that we watch, to the point where it has become a part of our culture.
This has, in turn, created a profound misunderstanding on our part as to the nature of righteous anger, what it is, and what it, ultimately, is intended to look like. This is, in no small part, due to the fact that we have interwoven the secular and the spiritual together so much that they become indistinguishable in matters such as this. The anger that seems so prevalent in our society today has a way of infecting everything that it touches. The secular component, as such, twists and warps our view in such a way that it becomes a more selfish, self-centered expression, focusing on our own sense of indignation amidst the backdrop of arrogance and pride. This, in turn, breeds a sense of bitterness and resentment which removes the fruits of the Spirit from the righteous anger, making it nothing more than simple anger.
What we so often find is that the anger that we want to believe is righteous anger is something different entirely. What starts out as perhaps a righteous anger quickly shifts; it quickly changes its focus. All of the sudden it isn’t about God anymore as it ventures away from a question of justice or injustice because it isn’t grounded in a Scriptural understanding. Rather, it is centered in our own perceptions and understanding, in our own desires and wants. This is because, though the intentions or the inclinations might, in fact, be the correct ones, the ultimate expression of it reshapes it.
We need to rediscover what the idea of righteous anger is, and what it’s not. We need to spend time in the Scriptures examining, exploring and meditating on what righteous anger is intended to look like, and what it’s intended to be. It is only when we do this that we are able to avoid the dangers which anger presents in the life of the believer.
What Righteous Anger Is
In Matthew’s gospel account we find a key teaching of Christ on the matter of anger. Teaching on the meaning of the commandment regarding murder (the fifth or the sixth depending on your tradition), he has a very clear statement regarding the individual who is angry against his brother without cause shall be judged by the religious authority. Those who lash out in that anger and outrage, calling them fool, will be guilty of hell. (Matt. 5:21-23)
What Christ is teaches here is something essential for us to understand. This is, namely, that there are two essential relationships that the believer needs to consider. The first is the horizontal relationship with God, and secondly, the vertical relationship that exists between individuals, and neither of these relationships exist within a vacuum. They are not independent of each other. We see this throughout the teachings of Christ. For example, when he is, again, speaking on the nature of the commandments, and he tells the teachers of the law that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord, your God with all your heart and soul and strength, while the second is like unto it, to love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:35-40; Mk. 12:28-34; Lk. 10:27)
Here, what we see is an important correlation. This is namely, in terms of the spiritual, in terms of the religious, murder and anger both bring about the wrath of God, particularly when the thoughts are acted upon. In the temporal earthly realm, they have different consequences. Yet, even as we consider those distinctions, we cannot ignore the fact that, according to the teaching of Christ, God views them in a similar manner.
This is, perhaps, what can make the Scriptures confusion on the question of anger. Scripture doesn’t say that one should never be angry. Rather, Christ draws a line of distinction. One should never be angry with others “without a cause”, without a fundamental reason that exists behind that anger. This important distinction then is critical to our understanding of what righteous anger is. After all, in the words of the Opus Imperfectum, as quoted by Thomas Aquinas, “He that is angry without cause, shall be in danger; but he that is angry with cause, shall not be in danger: for without anger, teaching will be useless, judgments unstable, crimes unchecked.”
As we recognize this, we come to realize then that righteous anger is, quite simply, an anger which is borne out of an offense to God, to His Word, or His righteousness. Arrived at from a place of righteousness, it is indicative of the regenerate life as one seeks to live as an imitator of Christ, directing itself towards those things that would offend and oppose God. Interwoven into it is a sense of justice and a moral compass which is calibrated to the objective, foundational truth of the Scriptures and the divine will of our Lord.
As such, there is no vanity in it. Rather it carries with it the desire to right a wrong, or to remedy a situation which is recognized as causing harm or hurt.
We witness righteous anger when we learn about God. God, by His very nature, is free of all sin and iniquity, evil and wickedness, incorruptible by His very being. Interwoven with this holiness is a righteousness which establishes for us the divine laws whereby He makes His will known to us. To contradict this will of our Lord is to risk incurring the wrath of God. Thus, as the Early Church Fathers, such as Tertullian and Augustine, would observe, wrath, which can also be considered to be anger, when it comes from God can only be rightly understood as being predicated on God’s justice. It is centered around the idea of unrighteousness, of those violations of the laws which He, Himself, has established which then demand action.
Thus, according to Tertullian in his work Adversus Marcionem, the goodness of God, His holiness, which allows for Him to judge unrighteousness and iniquity, requires a righteous anger, recognizing that even His severity is good. Unlike the anger of man, this anger of God, is not a corruption within Him. Rather, it is like the surgeon who has to cauterize or amputate or tighten. Righteous anger, like the tool of the doctor, is there to heal, and, without it, the patient would die. Therein, this righteous anger of God, is then an implement of His mercy, and, ultimately, His salvation.
What Righteous Anger Isn’t
If righteous anger is born out of a sense of justice, a desire to set right what is wrong as it is revealed by Gods and according to His Word there can be no sense of self in it.
Consider the story of Moses, for example, in Exodus 32. We read that, as he comes down from the mountain, he sees the children of Israel dancing around the golden calf, worshipping it. In that moment he burns hot with anger.
What we witness here is the reality of righteous anger. This is, namely, that it isn’t about the individual. Moses’ anger here is not about himself, it isn’t about a sense of injury or betrayal that he felt, it isn’t about them turning their back on him or abandoning Him, growing impatient waiting for him. Vanity and ego play no part in what the prophet witnesses. Rather, it is a reaction solely to their idolatry, to their crimes as they turned against God, and sinned against Him.
Likewise when Jesus cleanses the temple, chasing out the money changers and the merchants, (Matt. 21:12-13; Jn 2:15-16) does not center the focus on himself. It is not about him. It is about what these people are doing to his Father’s house, what they are doing to the temple of God and what they are turning it into. He is purifying it, not for himself, but for God.
What we come to understand then is that, though this righteous anger may stir in the individual intense feelings, it is not a frenzied emotional state inciting the individual to act, as if they were somehow consumed by it. Rather, this anger is guided by what can only be described as a deep desire to reconcile the individual, group, situation or circumstance to God. It is an expression of the learned Christian who studies the Word of God and seeks to humble themselves in pray that they may align themselves to the will of the Lord as His fire burns deep inside of them. This is what makes the warning of Gregory the Great so pertinent as he wrote, “We must beware lest, when we use anger as an instrument of virtue, it overrules the mind, and go before it as its mistress, instead of following in reason’s train, ever ready, as its handmaid, to obey.”
We see a wonderful example of this in the book of Nehemiah. The governor, in listening to the cries of the people, witnessing the injustice which they had suffered at the hands of those who had been entrusted with their care. (Neh. 5:1-6) How could he not? What he heard from the people ran contrary to the will and the laws of the Lord. It was abusive and manipulative against those people who he had been entrusted with the care of. We, perhaps, would expect him, in that very angry state, to act in a manner where he would be beholden to his emotional response.
Yet, the account of Nehemiah tells us something different entirely. Instead of acting in the moment, fed by those intense feelings, by those intense emotions, he stops. He takes counsel with himself before he acts. He prayerfully considers the situation, and then he makes his move to right the wrong which is happening. (Neh. 5:7-13)
Each of these situations remind us of something else that is important. This is namely that righteous anger isn’t idle. It does not brew and fester, it does not bubble in the pot waiting to boil over. That is a vain anger centered around the individual. This anger, righteous anger, on the other hand, spurs the individual to act, and, in acting, rectify what is wrong.
Born Out of Love
Perhaps one of the bigger misconceptions about righteous anger is the idea that it is born out of legalism. It is not necessarily difficult to see why one may believe that, or why they may come to this understanding. The truth is that legalism is an easy trap for one to fall into amidst their righteous anger. Spurred into action by what one witnesses as running contrary to God, to His will and His Word, it is easy to venture into the realm of the extreme. What we have to recognize though is that legalism tends to run contrary to the idea of righteous anger. The simple reason is because righteous anger is born out of love.
Love, true biblical love that we witness in Scripture can be harsh, particularly when it is accompanied by righteous anger. Focused on that horizontal relationship with God and that vertical relationship with others it seeks to call the wayward back from the path of disaster. It desires reconciliation with God above all else. As such, at times, it is going to be forced to share hard truths which are intended to draw the heart and mind back to the Lord, back to Christ.
This, as we have previously discussed, runs contrary to the world because the world’s definition of love is centered around, and framed by the idea of tolerance. It does not judge, nor does it condemn actions. Rather, it celebrates even the most blatant untruths as being someone’s own individual truth. It does not correct, nor does it push back even when someone sins against God, disregarding His righteousness. Why would it? It elevates subjective truth as being that much higher than the objective.
Yet, righteous anger is carried in love, in the truest sense of what love is, because it is grounded in God. In this sense, it is a liberating force, rather than an oppressive one, a healing power rather than a hurting one, as it seeks, through the work of the Spirit, to free people from the grip of sin and iniquity, losing the chains of those harmful things which are holding them back. Going back to Tertullian then, he observes that God’s righteous anger coincides with His mercy, reflecting His willingness and His desire to save. So too does it need to be with the Christian.
In this sense, what we need to remember is that righteous anger is meant for reconciliation, it is meant to unify, rather than to divide. This, though, can only occur along the proper lines, according to the proper terms. Like Moses in the account of the golden calf we must then be willing to call the people back, asking them to stand with the Lord, seeking their repentance.
This means that righteousness cannot be the only component of our righteous anger. Rather, it must come from a cause, and reflect in us both self-control and love. It must transcend us, and, in that, have an element of selflessness to it, one which is more concerned with others than it is with our own wellness or being.
This means that there are important questions that we need to ask ourselves, amidst our anger. Namely, what is it rooted in? Is it rooted in God’s Word and will or is it about what makes me mad personally? Is it focused on His truth and his righteousness? Does it demand justice or vengeance? Retribution or reconciliation? Do I desire the salvation of others in this anger? Do I desire the teachings of Jesus, do I desire the transformation of the Spirit, to triumph above all else?
How we answer these questions will tell us a great deal about the nature of the anger that we have, if it is, in fact, righteous or prideful. This is significant because we are engaged in spiritual warfare, and our adversary in this war will use our anger against us. He will twist it and turn it into something that it’s not supposed to be, harming us and our witness in the world. This is something which we have to be on constant guard against lest we fall.
Lord, grant us the strength and the spiritual maturity, the wisdom and the foresight we need to put then behind us our own anger, and create in us a spirit that seeks Your will and Your desires, Your righteousness. Amen.