Is there such a thing as righteous anger?
This was the question posed to me and it’s a good one. I can’t find the phrase in the Bible but there are principles that can be applied. So here is how I initially answered the question.
In the Bible, God is described as being angry in several different passages. Jesus is also described as being angry. We know that God and Jesus are both righteous. We get angry because we are created in the image of God.
But we are sinful, therefore God‘s commands reflect the fact that it is OK to be angry as long as we do not sin. Ephesians 4:26-27 is the passage where this is found, and also makes sure to tell us that it should only be for a short time; “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.”
The short answer is yes there is such a thing as righteous anger. But we need to be careful because we are sinful and so prone to unrighteous anger. I believe that is why the commands in the Bible to be kind, loving, merciful, gracious, and forgiving far outnumber this one command to be angry.
That’s the short answer. But this theme should be one worth exploring if you are someone who struggles with anger. God gets angry, but what does God get angry about? Jesus was angry, but what was Jesus angry about? When I get angry, is it a righteous anger, or a selfish anger? Psalm 7:11 has a very simple explanation for why God gets angry. The entire Psalm gives us the context that God is angry at wickedness or sinfulness. This theme is played out over many stories in scripture including the flood of Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the unfaithfulness of God’s own people Israel. Sinfulness makes God angry.
It would be so easy for us to think that whenever we get angry that it is a righteous anger because we are mad about someone else’s sin. However, the Bible commands us to judge ourselves before we would judge someone else. I Peter 4:14-19 instructs us how to handle suffering. Peter warns us that much of our suffering could be caused by our own sinfulness and not because we are righteous. Then Peter tells us that the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God. The righteous person is scarcely saved. If this is true, if we being righteous are just barely making it into the kingdom of God, how strictly we must judge ourselves before we turn our judging eye toward someone else that we would deem a wicked sinner. Remember Jesus told a little story about a beam and a mote.
We tend to make excuses for our own sins but want to hold others accountable for their sins. But, if their sins are inexcusable, why aren’t our own sins inexcusable? Why aren’t we ready to confess to others, “I’m sorry, I did something wrong and I have no excuse but my selfishness”? One of the prerequisites for being a Christian is that we confess rather than cover up our sins, see I John 1:8-10. Why aren’t we just as angry and incensed about our own tendency to sin as we are when others sin against us? Whatever answer you may have to explain this away is going to reflect a self-centered point of view, which, might I remind you, is one of the definitions of sinfulness.
Why do we get angry? It’s not always about someone doing us wrong. Sometimes it will be circumstances in general. “That’s not fair!” we exclaim when something happens. It may not be someone doing something against us, but instead a certain twist of fate that we just don’t appreciate. It could be sickness, loss of job or something valuable, or maybe even the untimely death of a loved one. We get mad because we think, “Why did it have to happen this way?” For an answer to this type of question, let me ask you one question. What about Job? Remember Job? In one day he lost all his wealth and all his children. Was that fair? And what was this for anyway? God and Satan were having a conversation. God says, “Take a look, he’s a righteous man.” The devil said, “Take everything away and he will turn on you.” God said, “Go ahead.” And what happened. God was right and the devil was wrong. But that’s not all. God and Satan had a follow up conversation. Satan pushed the issue even further challenging God that if Job’s health were taken away, then Job would turn on God. God said again, “Go ahead.” Again, God was right and the devil was wrong.
How does this story make you feel about God? God is up in heaven allowing the devil to do what he wants just to prove a point. All the while, Job wanted some kind of answer from God. Job knew that he had not committed a grievous sin for which God was punishing him. But he wanted some kind of audience with God to get an answer for his condition. Why God? Why me? Does this type of thing make you angry? Or do you trust God? Because you can’t have both. You either trust God or you are angry with Him about your circumstance. How often have you or I said or thought, “If I could just know the reason why this is happening, then I could deal with it.” I’m sure Job thought that, too. But that’s not faith. Remember Romans 14:23, whatever is not of faith is sin. Habakkuk is known for his brief statement, “The righteous live by faith.” If you don’t live by faith, you are not righteous.
If you would indulge me, I’d like to give a scenario for Psalm 39. In this Psalm, David finds himself outraged at a certain situation. He almost sins with his mouth, but God prevented him from talking. After David and God “had a moment”, God allowed David to talk once again. What was it that made David so angry? I have an idea so thank you for allowing me to entertain you with this story.
I said, “I will guard my ways,
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth with a muzzle,
so long as the wicked are in my presence.”
I was mute and silent;
I held my peace to no avail,
and my distress grew worse.
My heart became hot within me.
As I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
“O LORD, make me know my endand what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!
“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in you.
Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool!
I am mute; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.
Remove your stroke from me;
I am spent by the hostility of your hand.
When you discipline a man
with rebukes for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him;
surely all mankind is a mere breath! Selah
“Hear my prayer, O LORD,and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”
David had an incident in his life where someone (or maybe a group of people) who is foolish and wicked was standing before David. David wanted to lash out in anger over the situation, but God prevented him. God supernaturally made David mute and did not allow him to speak at all. When David finally regained his wits (when was the last time someone used that phrase in real life?) the response that flowed from his spirit was one of humility. He asked God to allow him to remember his own mortality, the fact that he would one day meet his death. He further asked God to deliver him of his sins. Imagine, someone wicked, probably deserving of death, was standing before David, and after God stopped David in his tracks from sinning with anger with his tongue, David began confessing his own sins. When was the last time you became outraged at someone else’s sins, but then ended up confessing your own sins?
I like to imagine what circumstances David was going through when he wrote individual psalms. For some reason, I think of the time when someone came to David with news that King Saul had died. You can read about this story in II Samuel 1. The story of how Saul actually died is in the previous chapter, I Samuel 31. In I Samuel 31 it is recorded that Saul killed himself. But here comes a young man falling down before David saying he has news of the fate of Saul and Jonathan. He tells David that Saul asked him to kill him, so he did. He says he took the crown and bracelets from Saul’s body after he was dead and then presented them to David.
David was full of all kinds of emotion. His king was dead. His best friend, Jonathan, was dead. The armies of Israel were scattered. Saul had tried to kill David multiple times but David had refused to stretch out his hand against the LORD’s anointed, and yet somehow he knew that one day God would judge Saul. David no longer had to be concerned with Saul pursuing him, yet this man was his father-in-law. Saul had called David his son at times. It was all coming true that God rewards the wicked therefore we are not to take vengeance into our own hands.
Here is this young man confessing that he did the exact opposite of what David had been practicing. David tears his clothes. He is in mourning. Yet the fate of this young man is left undetermined for a time. Could it be that David had the Psalm 39 experience while he was contemplating what to do with this murderer of his king? All types of things were running through David’s mind. But before David could pronounce a righteous judgment upon this murderer, David needed to be reminded of a few things. He needed to remember his own mortality. One day David will die as well. When will that be? Who will strike David down in battle? At the end of his life, after all the notable deeds, it will be just a vapor that has appeared for a moment. In comparison to Almighty God, who are we really? David also needed to be reminded of his own sinfulness. If he pronounced judgment upon this man, does that mean that David is righteous and has never sinned? No, of course not. David’s first thought may have been, “How dare he!” But then David (after God struck him speechless) thought of the times when he was tempted to strike Saul down. He had cut his royal robe as an act of dishonor. David was reminded that he had sinned as well.
Before David pronounced his first death sentence, he needed to be in a right place with God. God struck him with the weight of the situation. If out of anger David rushed over and struck him down, that would have been just as bad as what this young foreigner did. The young man was not an Israelite, but he still needed to be treated with respect. As King, David would not be pronouncing judgment upon others because he was more righteous than they. In fact, David was just as sinful as God reminded him in that moment. God reminded him of his sin so forcefully that David begged God to “look away that I might smile again.” David confessed to God that he is also a foreigner in God’s sight, therefore no better than this foreigner. God stepped in to correct David and it made his vitality dry up. David held his tongue until God had “the talk” with him. Now David could open his mouth and render judgment that would not be out of anger.
After David regains his composure, being reminded of his sinfulness, being reminded of his own mortality, David very simply pronounced judgment. He only asked one question to which the young foreigner had no answer. Why were you not afraid to stretch out your hand to destroy the one that God anointed? David commanded one of his young men to execute him for the crime of murder, and that of murdering the king. David very simply states, “His own mouth testified against him. He admitted that he killed the LORD’s anointed.” David has regained his equanimity. He is not speaking out of anger. He knows that he is sinful but must function as God’s agent in this instance. This man’s life will end here. David’s will go on, but for how long? David must not be proud against this young foreigner. One day David’s life will end as well.
The next time you get angry or want to lash out in anger at a situation, remember this lesson from King David. He had it written down after all. Let God have a moment with you. Remember your own sins. Remember your own mortality. Remember that we as Christians are to live as if we are in a foreign land because we are not truly home yet. Then, after God has convicted you of these simple lessons, then proceed with humility. Be angry, but do not sin.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman