How Can We Be Angry and Not Sin?
“Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Is this even possible?
Not if perfect, sinless anger is the requirement, since sin infects everything we think, say, and do.
But I don’t think Paul had perfect, sinless anger in mind when he quoted King David from Psalm 4:4 to the Ephesians. Paul’s point seems to be that not all anger Christians experience is rooted in the prideful, selfish soil of our sin nature.
There is a kind of anger that comes from our regenerate, Spirit-directed nature, even if it is unavoidably tainted by our indwelling sin as it passes through the defective filters of our minds and mouths. And because the Holy Spirit through David and Paul instructs us to “be angry,” it means some things must make us righteously angry.
So what does righteous anger look like in a Christian?
What Is Righteous Anger?
First, let’s ask: What is righteous anger?
Righteous anger is being angry at what makes God angry. And “righteous anger” is the right word order. Because God is not fundamentally angry. He is fundamentally righteous. God’s anger is a byproduct of his righteousness.
God’s righteousness is his being perfectly right in all his ways, all of his manifold perfections operating together in perfect proportion, consistency, and harmony. God is the very definition and standard of goodness (Mark 10:18). What God says (Hebrews 6:5) and what God does (Micah 6:8) are good because they are “righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9) — they perfectly represent his comprehensive perfection.
So, what makes God angry is the perversion of his goodness; the turning wrong of what he made right. God calls this perversion evil. Evil twists and disfigures God’s glory, vandalizing what is most valuable, and profaning what is most holy. Evil poisons and distorts reality, resulting in the destruction of joy for every creature that chooses the perversion over God’s good.
God’s righteousness demands his anger over such destructive perversion and that he mete out commensurate justice against those who commit such evil.
So our anger is righteous when we are angered over evil that profanes God’s holiness and perverts his goodness.
What Is Sinful Anger?
But humans, being evil (Luke 11:13), are not characterized by righteous anger but sinful anger, we Christians too often included. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” because the anger of man is more concerned with man than with God (James 1:20).
I scarcely need to make this point. You know exactly what I mean. We tend to get angrier over our slighted pride than over the marring of God’s glory. We tend to get angrier over a minor inconvenience than a grievous injustice. We are often self-righteously angry like the older brother over his prodigal sibling (Luke 15:28), or selfishly angry like Jonah over the death of a plant while not caring about the welfare of 120,000 people (Jonah 4:9–11).
Anger rooted in our sin nature produces “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20). It produces “enmity, strife . . . fits of anger [i.e. tantrums], rivalries, dissensions, [and] divisions” (Galatians 5:20). Sinful anger is so common in us that we must be regularly reminded to put away “anger, wrath, [and] malice” (Colossians 3:8) and that “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22).
The Loving Slowness of Righteous Anger
Righteous anger doesn’t look or feel like sinful anger because godly righteous anger is governed and directed by love. God is righteous, but he is also love (1 John 4:8). And love is patient (1 Corinthians 13:4).
That’s why God repeatedly describes himself in Scripture as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3).
God is slow to anger, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God will bring his righteous judgment to bear on the unrepentant guilty (Exodus 34:7), but he “does not afflict from his heart” (Lamentations 3:33). And he moves with a measured, merciful, loving slowness.
If you want to see love-governed anger in operation, look at Jesus.
Jesus knew a day of judgment was coming when he would come to earth as the King of kings and “tread [his enemies in] the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God” (Revelation 19:15–16). But long before bringing judgment, he came to bring salvation to his enemies (John 12:47; Romans 5:8). And when he came to save, he rarely expressed anger.
And those who walk closest with Jesus are also marked by this remarkable patience with sinners. They too are “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). They do get angry, but like Jesus, their anger is laced with grief (Mark 3:5). Occasionally they flip tables in the temple (John 2:15–17), but they also weep over Jerusalem (Luke 13:34).
How Should We “Be Angry”?
Being angry and not sinning requires the discernment of constant practice (Hebrews 5:14) because so much of our anger is rooted in our prideful, selfish sin nature. And if we’ve suffered under the tyranny of a sinfully angry person, emotionally it can be very difficult to distinguish between sinful and righteous anger. But because it is something God calls us to, we must press into it.
So what does righteous anger look like in a Christian?
Righteous anger is roused by evil that profanes God’s holiness and perverts his goodness. Increasingly we become “greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked,” and find “their lawless deeds” tormenting (2 Peter 2:7–8). Increasingly we care more about God’s reputation than our own. Wherever we lack in these is where we must focus our repentance, prayers, fasting, and biblical meditation.
Righteous anger first sees the logs in our own eyes (Matthew 7:5). We are humbled, grieved, and angered by our own perverting of God’s goodness and we repent before addressing anyone else’s.
Righteous anger is grieved, not merely infuriated, by evil. Jesus did flip tables in the temple, but he was deeply grieved over the sin that made it necessary (Matthew 23:37). Anger with no tears over evil is often evidence of a lack of love in us.
Righteous anger is governed by God’s love and therefore slow to be expressed, allowing redemptive acts of love to be pursued first if at all possible. We truly want mercy to triumph over judgment for others (James 2:13), remembering Jesus’s mercy toward us and that he first came carrying a cross before coming bearing a sword.
Righteous anger acts swiftly when necessary. Some forms of evil require us to be quick to speak and quick to act. The slaughter of unborn children, ethnic and economic injustice, abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), sex trafficking, human slavery, adultery, refugee plight, persecution, and other such evils call for urgent, immediate rescue (Proverbs 24:11).
We will never be perfectly angry in this age. But we can grow in the grace of righteous anger. God means us to. It is part of being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).
Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And one of his Scriptural commands is, “Be angry, and do not sin.”
The Root of Sinful Anger | In this episode of Ask Pastor John, guest Dr. David Powlison answers the question, “What is sinful anger, and what does it express?”
What Our Anger Is Telling Us | Much of our anger is due to our disordered loves, the age-old problem of taking good things and making them ultimate. This article provides three steps to freedom from disordered loves.
Battling the Unbelief of Bitterness | In this sermon, Pastor John describes the serious danger of anger and provides practical help for fighting the forms of unbelief that often fuel it.