Anger is not receiving its due attention. Often, sexual sin captures our attention; anger less so. But when the apostle Paul lists sins, he especially identifies out-of-control desires that express themselves in sensuality and anger, with idolatry as a common thread between the two.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies. (Galatians 5:19–21)
With the seriousness of anger in mind, here are a few basic standards that can improve our anger literacy.
We All Become Sinfully Angry
No exceptions. Today, in your church, anger is a destroyer — separating friends, breaking marital bonds, crushing children. It can take different forms. Look for anger in murderous rages, but also look for it in grumbling and complaining (Numbers 14:2, 11), or in a cold shoulder or silence. Sometimes it turns away rather than rages against, but it is in us all.
We want peace, health, respect, love, control, influence, safety, and much more. Sinful anger appears when these desires and expectations quietly become more important to us than loving God and loving neighbor (James 4:1–2).
Anger Blinds Us
We underestimate our own anger’s frequency and its impact on others. Other people underestimate the impact of their anger on us. Our anger feels like, “I am right.” It actually says, “I hate you” and “I am above you.” The more extreme our anger, the more confident we are that we are right. As a result, angry people are the last to know that they are sinfully angry.
Anger can also say, “I am hurt and don’t want to be hurt again” or “I am afraid and feel powerless,” but even then it remains a way that we manage our world in our own way and on our own terms.
Jesus was never angry when he was tested, mocked, or rejected. He did, indeed, become angry. The money-changer incident is among the best-known New Testament stories (John 2:13–17). But his anger was not mixed with selfish and prideful motivations like ours. His intense passion was for his Father’s glory.
In other words, anger is not always sinful, but given the few times we actually stumble upon righteous anger, we would do well not to give our own anger the benefit of the doubt.
The Best Text on Anger
James 4:1–10 is a passage that crams in most everything we need to know about our anger:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
There are passages and stories about anger throughout Scripture, and none is complete in itself, but James gives us quite a bit. Our desires, our fights, our relationship with God, and the influence of Satan — they are all brought together in James’s words to us about anger.
He doesn’t go into detail about the Lord’s patience and how he is quick to forgive — these gems are embedded in his comment about God’s jealousy on our behalf and how the Lord gives more and more grace. What the passage does is open our blind eyes to see how anger is against other people and against the Lord. We would all benefit from mastering and being mastered by these verses.
Where Do We Turn?
When we turn from one thing, we want to know what we are turning to. We turn away from our self-fueled anger. We turn to Christ and live under him. We turn from how we authorize our anger because we are “right” (and we might actually have evidence that would stand in court). We turn to humility and love. And this turn will have more longevity when done with mourning and weeping (James 4:9).
We are busy people, and it is not easy to find a place for those matters that are on the heart of God, but our sinful anger is temporary sympathy with the devil’s murderous ways. It opposes the unity that is at the heart of Christ’s kingdom.
We must not overlook this sin or excuse it away.