There is no such thing as “righteous anger” in the Bible — not for humans, anyway.
Yes, anger happens. It’s a fact of life. You might even get angry reading this.
Anger is a natural response to threat. We’re humans. The Bible tells us to get rid of anger, but there’s a common notion among Christians that there’s an anger that’s justified, one we’re supposed to harbor. We call it “righteous anger.”
The problem is, there’s no such thing in the Bible — not for humans, anyway. In fact, the very same passage that people use to justify their anger (“In your anger do not sin,” Paul writes) concludes with “get rid of all . . . anger.” Paul’s merely writing what I just wrote: we get angry, yes, but we’re supposed to dump it, fast.
He simply doesn’t allow for human “righteous” anger.
It’s at this point that I usually hear, “Okay, but it is true that, biblically, human anger does, sometimes, produce the righteousness God desires.”
Here’s the problem with that: James writes, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.”
The idea that we’re capable of “righteous anger” is so common, so taken for granted, that some are shocked to hear it challenged. And yet the alternative to anger is something Jesus followers know they’re called to: forgiveness.
And forgiveness becomes easier when we reject commonly held myths about anger — like these four:
1. We know when our anger is justified.
No, we don’t. We’re terrible at this. The worst. We always think we’re right. But our hearts are deceitful. We’re masters at self-deception.
There’s a Proverb that says the first to testify always seems right. And guess who, in our daily dealings, the “first to testify” is, in our own heads?
It’s us. Of course.
We excel at casting ourselves as victims. But, like Paul writes in an oft-ignored passage in I Corinthians 4, we don’t really know others’ motives, and — shockingly — we don’t even know our own.
This makes it really difficult for us to decide impartially whether our anger is justified. I’ve learned a few things as I’ve grown up, and one of them is that I’m very, very biased . . . in favor of me.
We’re the last ones who should be arbiters of the “righteousness” of our own anger.
2. God gets angry, so we’re entitled to anger, too.
Sounds reasonable. It just isn’t biblical.
We’re never, ever told to nurse our anger, not even for a minute, while calling it “righteous.” If you are a believer, God works in and through us, but we are not God. He is sinless. We’re not.
God can be trusted with anger. We can’t. (He’s entitled to vengeance, too, and that’s not for us either.)
Instead, Jesus casts us in a story as the “unmerciful servant.” You can look it up. We’re the ones who are guilty, so we cannot refuse to forgive another’s guilt. God is the King in that story, not me.
3. The Bible tells us to get angry about injustice.
It doesn’t. This shocks people, and then they wonder, “Wait, so we’re just supposed to accept injustice?” — as though that is the only other alternative.
What injustice actually calls for is action. We shouldn’t confuse anger and action, as so many do in our age of public offense and anger posing. Anger doesn’t require sacrifice; action does.
People get mad on social media every day. They’re highly offended. And yet, researchers find that the people who, say, click “like” on a cause are not more likely to give to it — they’re actually less likely! For those who say people need anger to act, I say there are just as many who use anger as a way to avoid acting.
For the Christian, it’s not only the wrong motive (and God cares very much about our motives), but it also makes us feel like we’ve done something when we haven’t.
If I’m crazy on this, that we’re not supposed to be fueled by anger to take action, I’m not alone. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer — among others — believed the same thing. Both fought injustice with their very lives.
Love, not anger, should be our motivation. Love is not passive. Forgiveness takes work. It’s anger that’s passive. Staying angry is natural. It’s the path of least resistance.
4. Anger is a sign of spiritual maturity.
Problem: anger is never, ever listed in the “good” lists of the Bible. It’s not a fruit of the Spirit, along with love, joy, and peace . . . it’s always listed in the negative, along with bitterness.
Always. And, you’ve likely noticed, no one speaks about “righteous bitterness.”
Anger and forgiveness are at odds. We can’t say, both, “I’m holding on to my anger with you” and, “I forgive you.” Unless, that is, we’re kidding about the second part.
We have to pick one or the other. As someone who needs all the grace he can get, I’m opting for forgiveness. If I want God’s forgiveness extended to me, I need to extend it to others.
* * *
Look, I know this sounds crazy, at least to a lot of people. I grew up thinking my anger could be righteous. But please entertain, for a moment, the idea this is true and that God is asking us to live in forgiveness, refuse to take offense, and when we do get angry . . . to drop it. Not because the other person “deserves” it, but because of what God has done for us.
It would make us more restful. It would make us more content. And humble. And joyful, too.
Is it hard? Oh yes. Excruciating. It’s almost like dying to one’s very self. Maybe we should teach people this. Maybe it’s even the essence of discipleship.
Maybe this is what it means to pick up our cross, and look out at the very guilty people in front of us, and pray, “Father, forgive them . . . ”
By Brant Hansen