Does Righteous Anger Kill Our Joy?
Does holy anger kill our delight in God? It’s a good question from Matt, a listener in Wisconsin. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast! I think we are living in an age where Christians are taking hard stances on just about anything and everything, making decisions about vaccines and politicians and masks — decisions all held with unflexing, biblical conviction. And then those staunch positions, and the resulting strong language, is justified by Christians in terms of righteous anger — like Jesus flipping tables and not sinning.
A long time back, in an episode on abortion, APJ 672, you made a case for using righteous anger to call out the evil of killing the unborn. It witnesses to the world the degree of such an injustice. But later you were asked about the distinction between unholy anger and holy anger. That was in APJ 1100. And there you said,
I was much more optimistic about a righteous place for anger when I was 30 than I am now. I have seen the destructive power of anger in relationships, especially marriage, to such a degree over the last forty to fifty years that I am far less sanguine about so-called righteous anger than I once was. Anger is not just a relationship destroyer; it is a self-destroyer. It eats up all other wholesome emotions.
I’m wondering if that last phrase is connected to your overwhelming emphasis in your ministry on delighting in God and desiring God. Were you there suggesting that ‘righteous anger’ tends to ‘eat up’ the proper, more dominantly necessary emotions of delight and satisfaction in God? And where are you at now in life with the value or dangers of righteous anger?”
I’m glad to address this again. I feel very strongly about it. So was I suggesting that righteous anger can become a destructive anger that eats up the God-glorifying emotions of joy and peace and delight in God? Yes, absolutely, I was suggesting that and believe it. Anger of a certain kind and a certain duration will not only eat up all God-glorifying emotions, but it will eat up virtually all emotions and leave a person with an outward, plastic, superficial personality or persona, and an inward, easily offended cauldron of suppressed anger. I have seen it in life. I see evidences of it in the Bible.
So let’s look at a few passages for why I see things this way and feel as strongly as I do, and perhaps I can give some help not to go there.
Slow to Anger
You have this famous statement in James 1:19–20:
Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
Now notice the logic, the logical connection: be slow to anger because the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. So a quick-tempered person is generally experiencing anger that is not of God. And that’s the logic: It is simply man’s anger. Quick anger is regularly man’s anger, not God’s anger. It’s not righteous. It’s destructive. Now listen to these proverbs to see where James has rooted all this. I think James is the closest thing we get to the book of Proverbs in the New Testament. I don’t doubt that he was deeply schooled on Proverbs.
- Proverbs 14:17: “A man of quick temper acts foolishly.”
- Proverbs 14:29: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.”
- Proverbs 15:18: “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.”
- Proverbs 16:32: “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”
- Proverbs 19:11: “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
Wisdom from Above
So then you go over to James 3. I think it is really important to align James 1:19–20 with James 3:14–18, and you see the heavenly alternative to the merely human anger that does not produce the righteousness of God. Here’s what it says.
The wisdom from above [it’s heavenly; not just from a man] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
And remember that James 1:20 said that anger does not produce the righteousness of God. So here you get a harvest of righteousness, and this harvest is sown in peace by those who make peace — in other words, the opposite of anger. Anger seldom accomplishes the good ends that James is after — namely, a harvest of right, good, wholesome, just, loving behavior. It may. I’m going to get to the fact that there is such a thing as righteous anger, but it is really rare, I think, and therefore, James says, “Be slow to go there — very, very slow to get there.”
So the very least we can say from James is that if anger should come, it should come slowly — not necessarily temporally slowly, though that’s probably the case ordinarily, but rather in this sense: It’s got to go through some real serious filters in your soul. It’s got to go through the filter of humility, and through the filter of patience, and through the filter of wisdom, and through the filter of love, and through the filter of self-control. And if it comes out on the other side, it might be righteous anger. It should be slow in the sense that you put it through the paces. Don’t just go there.
Now here comes Ephesians 4. That’s the only other text we will look at in a significant way.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26–27)
So James says, “Be . . . slow to anger.” And Paul says, “Be quick to stop being angry.” That’s really significant, isn’t it? Paul puts a high premium on the duration of anger. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Be done with it by sundown. It’s dangerous. And the danger is the devil. So, James and Paul treat anger as a hot potato: Be slow to catch it. And if you’ve got to catch it, toss it quickly to somebody else — or better, toss it in the river.
Now, why? And Paul gives the reason why it’s so dangerous. He says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Get rid of it quick. Don’t give place to the devil.” So to go to bed seething, to go to bed with a grudge, to go to bed with anger that’s not dealt with — not forgiving people, holding a grudge — is an invitation as you go to sleep to the devil to come on in. And it seems that the devil specializes in moving into this deadly work, his deadly work, where anger is held onto day and night.
So one of the signs of righteous anger is that it comes slowly, and it leaves quickly. It does not dominate. It does its work in the moment, and it doesn’t stay around to contaminate. It doesn’t give place to the devil. And what I’ve been saying for years is that what the devil does, when you give him place by holding onto anger longer than you should, is eat up every alternative, good, God-glorifying emotion. And I would add from what I’ve seen in recent days, that he not only eats up good affections and emotions, but that, in the absence of those affections, he eats truth. He distorts true perceptions. We don’t see things as clearly when anger eats us up.
I have seen it. I’ve seen people move from the most mild assessments of someone’s error to damnation. I mean, you wonder, Where did that come from, that they would move to the point of actually damning another person for what started out to be a relatively minor fault? And I think part of the answer is that anger eats up love, anger eats up affections, anger eats up thankfulness, and anger eats up true perceptions of reality. So the point is this:
- The devil hates joy in God.
- The devil hates tenderhearted compassion.
- The devil hates us to be kind to suffering people.
- The devil hates sweet affection for our families.
- The devil hates it when husbands and wives are tenderhearted and kind and forgiving to each other (Ephesians 4:32).
- The devil hates wonder and admiration at the beauties of nature.
- The devil hates all the fruit of the Holy Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, meekness, faithfulness, self-control (Galatians 5:22–23).
He hates them all. And when we give him place in our hearts at night, going to bed with anger, the jaws called anger consume, over time, all those precious affections.
So the present state of my mind here — he asked, “Where’s your mind presently on this issue?” The present state of my mind, both biblically and culturally on this question about anger, is that anger is a dangerous emotion — not necessarily sinful. God, by the way, is the only person who is holy enough to manage it really well. And he does get angry, and he never sins. But we, however, being fallen and sinful, must consider it much more dangerous for us than it is for God. It’s not dangerous for God. Nothing is dangerous for God. It has a proper place, therefore, only when it comes slowly, leaves quickly, and in between, is truly governed by a love for people and the glory of God.
So, let me end the way Paul does, following up on his admonition not to go to bed angry. He says in the next verses,
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger [now we’re told that not only do you give place to the devil, but you grieve the Spirit, if you hold onto anger] and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:30–32)
And there’s the key, isn’t it? We must let our affections be joyfully overwhelmed that, while we deserve wrath and anger from God, amazingly, we have been forgiven by the death of the only innocent person who ever lived. That state of mind and heart — being forgiven and amazed at our forgiveness, like John Newton in “Amazing Grace” — will keep anger from rising too quickly or staying too long.