Righteous v. Unrighteous Anger
Some of my most harmful sins have been committed when I’ve been angry. I’ve yelled, said things to hurt rather than to communicate, and I’ve shut off any ability for God to work in the situation because I’m living completely to serve myself. Typically, I’m angry because I’m hurt. I’ve been wronged, and rather than vulnerably explain the hurt caused - vulnerability means the potential for more hurt, and I’ve been hurt enough - I lash out to protect myself. I fight back. While that shield works for the moment, it creates a barrier that prevents unity and restoration in the relationship in the long term. Whether that relationship is my marriage, my family, friends or co-workers, it doesn’t matter. The relationship that it ultimately affects the most, is my relationship with God. My argument for fighting back is often, “hello! I’ve been wronged! I need to protect myself! Right? A sin has been committed against me and I need to do something.” I’ve been a victim before, and I swore I’d never be a victim again - no matter what. I have the power to fight back, so I will. But that’s not even the core issue. In the depths of my heart are a series of questions: “God, do you see this injustice? Are you there? Do you care?” I act on my own behalf rather than risking the answer from him being, “No.” The message for most contemporary Christians is that we’re not supposed to ask those questions. We just have to trust that God does care, but how can we believe that when he seems so painfully silent in the midst of such wrongdoing? It only took a couple fits of rage where I overturned tables (literally), blood vessels bulging in my neck and my throat raw from yelling before I realized my anger was a serious problem. Stuffing anger, ignoring it and hoping it’ll go away, only made things worse. So what do I do with it? So often, anger, sadness, grief, and fear automatically get tossed into a “bad” pile and shoved in the darkest corner of the closet. We hope no one will see us feel those emotions. Meanwhile joy, happiness, contentment and peace are put on the good shelf for all to see - even if we have to fake it. “Look how good I am,” we say with a smile. The gospels tell a story of how Jesus was so angry he once overturned tables in the temple and used a homemade whip to drive people out (Matthew 21; Mark 11; John 2). Not exactly a picture of peace. I once used that argument to justify my behavior and quickly realized Jesus’ anger was quite a bit different than mine. It’s not that he didn’t feel anger, but rather he used it for a specific purpose. Anger itself isn’t a sin. Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Paul writes to the church “BE angry” (emphasis mine). Meaning, go ahead! Get angry! Just don’t sin. But how is that even possible? When I get angry all I want to do is throw my fist through a wall, slam a door (or two), yell at the top of my lungs and speak ill of and at the source of my anger. The key to this balance is what separates Jesus’ overturning tables in the temple and my anger. One is righteous, the other is not. One is other-focused, the other is self-focused.
I’ve been reading Dr. Dan B. Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman III’s book, “The Cry of the Soul” and it has provided some very helpful insights. They write the following about unrighteous anger: “Unrighteous anger is a dark energy that demands for the self a more tolerable world now, instead of waiting for God’s redemption according to divine design and timing… (it) attempts to control the choices of others, especially in regard to our attempt to possess what we believe is essential to our well-being… the core of unrighteous anger is a hatred of vulnerability and a love of control,” (p. 38, 40, 42-43). Of righteous anger they write: “Righteous anger, on the other hand, does not suppress choice. Instead, it unnerves by offering a taste of pain in order to compel change… Righteous anger wounds when the warning and the desire to bless continue to be violated. Anger is a taste of hell that calls the arrogant offender to repentance. It is a weapon that exposes, invites change, and provokes pain - all for the sake of compelling the one who did harm to deal with their sin… the essence of righteous anger is a hatred of sin and a love of beauty” (p. 38, 42). Now that’s convicting. It’s caused me to step back and check my heart. Is my anger leading me to want - or even try - to control the other person? Is it vindictive? Does it want to cause harm to make me feel better? Is it about self-preservation? If so, it’s not righteous and I’m in sin. I need to repent of my lack of trust in God. What does trust have to do with anger? If I trust God then I’ll trust his promises. One of those promises is that when I face a grievance, no matter how small, he will protect me. Even when it doesn’t seem like he’s doing much about the situation. “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him.” - Proverbs 91:14-15 “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,’” - Romans 12:19. Will I believe that? Will I wait on God, as the psalmist encourages me to? (Psalm 27:14; 33:20) So much of our walk with God is less about who God is, and more about whether or not we’ll believe God is who he says he is, he’s done what he says he’s done, and that he’ll do what he says he’ll do. God loves us so much he gave us the freedom to choose what we’re going to believe. Anger isn’t bad. It simply needs to be a righteous anger that seeks to restore, rather than an unrighteous anger that seeks to control and destroy.