How to Kill Sinful Anger
All sinful anger is hard to fight. It’s a selfish, hot-blooded passion our flesh enjoys indulging. But I find it particularly difficult to fight the sinful anger that I feel I have a right to feel.
Angry Over a Perceived Injustice
This kind of anger is different than irritation or short-term mad-flares. We usually know those are wrong, because they are usually manifestly wrong. But anger we want to justify typically results when we feel disillusioned, disappointed, discouraged, or hurt. It might be because:
- A relational conflict keeps recurring despite countless attempts at resolution;
- An intractable, exasperating personal weakness keeps dogging us despite countless attempts to change;
- We feel trapped in a difficult, painful, or apparently dead-end situation;
- A betrayal has left us suffering and our betrayer prospering;
- We are seeking God’s guidance on an important decision and he just seems quiet;
- In spite of all our labors and prayers, a reviving, regenerating move of the Holy Spirit in our family or church or community just doesn’t come.
We can feel that it’s our right to be angry over such things because from our perspective they appear unjust and therefore we feel more a victim than a sinner.
Angry Over Ambiguity
Or perhaps we’re angry over the ambiguities such situations raise for us. They leave us with questions. At a high level we know that God promises to work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28), but closer to the ground, where we live, things look more ambiguous and we’re confused.
Is it possible that things are as they are because we aren’t working out our own faith like we should (Philippians 2:12–13)? Are we, like the disciples, not seeing the results we desire because our faith is defective (Matthew 17:19–20)? Are we not praying correctly or praying enough (Luke 18:1–8)? Like the twelve Christians in Ephesus, are we ignorant about something important (Acts 19:1–7)? Do we feel stuck because God isn’t acting or because we aren’t?
When we look at our situation, we aren’t exactly sure. We can think of biblical examples that point in different directions. What does God want from us? Why doesn’t he make it more clear?
Frustration builds. Perceived injustice and ambiguity can tempt us to anger. And the anger can feel seductively justifiable.
How We Know Our Anger Is Not Righteous
However, this kind of anger is not righteous anger. A tree is known by its fruit (Luke 6:43–45). We can tell if anger is sinful because we feel its defiling effect of impurity on us.
Righteous anger bears redemptive fruit. In righteous anger, we join God in anger over evil. It is an anger we feel with God, not at God. This kind of anger moves us toward acts of faith and love and true justice. Righteous anger feels grief (Mark 3:5), and because it is actually an expression of love, a deep displeasure over the way evil defames God and destroys people, it is not arrogant or rude or stubborn or resentful (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). It does not, in reality or fantasy, want revenge (Romans 12:19–20). And since we join God in this love-induced displeasure, it moves toward prayer.
But sinful anger does not bear redemptive fruit. Rather, it leaves us with a grey, burned-over barrenness of exasperated frustration. It produces a sour feeling in the pit of our gut. Sinful anger alienates us from God. It does not move us toward acts of faith and love and true justice, but rather toward acts of selfishness like sullen withdrawal, irritability, rudeness, obstinacy, and bitterness. Sinful anger is characterized by the self-oriented grief of self-pity, not godly grief over evil. And it produces the cancer of cynicism that eats away at faith, eroding our desire to pray.
We all know that sinful anger needs to be killed, but this kind is hard to kill because its objection is so emotionally compelling: “But I have a right to be angry!” That’s how it feels; how we want it to feel. It speaks self-flattering words to us that feed our pride and, like sexual sin, there is a selfish pleasure in indulging it and the sinful part of us doesn’t want to stop.
Killing Our Right to Be Angry
There is only one way to put sinful anger to death: self-humbling. Sinful anger is fueled by pride, so we have to cut the fuel supply. And most of our anger is diffused in two simple, self-humbling ways.
We must pray. We know that, but the problem is that when sinful anger is roused we don’t feel like praying. And that’s what we need to remember: Expect to not want to pray. Prayer itself is an act of self-humbling faith. Despising our initial emotional resistance, praying from the heart really does begin to diffuse anger. God wants us to be very honest in our prayers. Regardless of perceived injustice or the ambiguity we experience, we don’t have a legitimate reason to be angry with God. Anger at God is unbelief. But we most definitely need to honestly and frankly confess our anger with him, repent as best we can, and plead for his help to understand what we can and to trust him with what we can’t. He promises to respond to our humility with grace (James 4:6).
We must talk about it. Pride hates confessing sin to other people. If we feel resistance to doing it, it’s an indicator that pride is likely at the root. Talking to someone about it wages war on sinful anger. It has a head-clearing effect on us. And objective input helps correct our perspective and honestly address the question, “Why do I have a right to be angry?” Answering this question out loud often exposes our errant presumptions and pride.
Killing sinful anger that feels justifiable is hard. It’s an insidious lie disguised in a robe of justice. And it is spiritually malignant. When it is metastasizing, it feels deceptively life-giving to indulge and humbling ourselves feels like death. But the opposite is true.
“The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Our sinful anger will never produce justice nor will it provide answers to ambiguity. But humbling ourselves before God (1 Peter 5:6) will ensure that ultimate true justice prevails (Psalm 37:6) and all ambiguity will in God’s time receive the needed guidance (Proverbs 3:5–6).