What is the difference between unholy anger and holy anger, and does that difference have any application to our own lives? This is the question from a listener named Renee. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for taking my question. I hear the phrase ‘righteous anger’ used a lot, but I am not 100% clear on what that looks like or what makes anger righteous or sinful. I understand we are to feel anger towards sin. Jesus overturned tables in his anger, but I don’t think we should respond to sin by breaking things. So how does righteous anger play itself out for the Christian? What does it look like toward people, toward sin, and toward the devil?”
Well, I was much more optimistic about a righteous place for anger when I was thirty 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. If it is not dealt with, it consumes everything in its path and leaves the woman or man with nothing but bitterness and anger. They are not capable of any other emotion. It’s either silence or anger, and it’s a horrible development.
“Anger is not just a relationship destroyer; it is a self-destroyer. It eats up all other wholesome emotions.”
Therefore, the overwhelming message of the New Testament is to put away anger. Colossians 3:8 says, “Put them all away: anger, wrath, malice.” Ephesians 4:31–32 says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and 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.”
Colossians 3:19 states, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” It’s very interesting that the word harsh (πικραίνεσθε) is the same root as the word πικρία, “put away bitterness,” in Ephesians 4:31–32. That word means don’t become deep, long-term embittered and angry with a spouse. Anger kills a marriage way more often than sexual misconduct.
Love Your Enemies
Of course, there are the Proverbs: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding” (Proverbs 14:29). Or, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty” (Proverbs 16:32). Or, “Good sense makes one slow to anger” (Proverbs 19:11).
Then there’s the most important thing for me: the pervasive Christian emphasis in the New Testament on loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, not returning evil for evil. All of this happens because Jesus died for his enemies. He died for the ungodly. He died for people like me, and prayed for his enemies while he was dying. He was not seething with anger as he died under the hand of horrific abuse and injustice. That’s our great and most difficult calling, according to 1 Peter 2:21.
Righteous Anger Is Real
We also know Scripture says God has anger, and he’s holy. Jesus in Mark 3:5 “looked around on them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” Paul in Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” James said, “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. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:19–21).
“One of the most difficult battles of the Christian life is not to be angry when you’re not supposed to be angry.”
Renee is right to ask about the role of holy or righteous or good anger, since clearly the Bible says there is such a thing. I want to make crystal clear that I consider one of the foremost and difficult battles of the Christian life is not the battle to stir up righteous anger, but the battle not to be angry at all when you’re not supposed to be angry.
It seems to me that the great miracle of the Christian life would be experiencing the wonderful secret of how to obey the command “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you” (Ephesians 4:31). What a miracle that would be! What a world changer. What a marriage changer. What a parenting changer. What a church changer that would be.
What Is Righteous Anger?
But let me answer Renee’s question about what righteous anger might look like. I’m going to do it negatively. I’m taking my cue from Paul’s statement that we should not let the sun go down on our anger and James’s statement that we should be slow to anger and that the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.
The fact that James and Paul say that anger is dangerous, and therefore it should come slowly and go quickly, says to me, don’t savor it. Don’t cherish it. This is the great killer. If you feel so justified in your anger because of what somebody said or did, you savor it, you suck it like a candy, and it just kills everything. So, here are my suggestions, and I’ll just say them real quick, showing what righteous anger is.
1. Righteous anger does not savor being angry as a means of self-vindication and self-exaltation. God opposes the proud (James 4:6).
2. Righteous anger does not savor being angry as a kind of emotional damnation of other people. We are to bless those who curse us, not damn them.
“Anger kills a marriage way more often than sexual misconduct.”
3. Righteous anger does not savor being angry with no prayer or effort to heal and rectify the situation that made us angry (as much as possible). Romans 12:18 challenges us to help people change with a view to helping those who made us angry.
4. Righteous anger does not savor being angry as though we ourselves were not sinners, as though we had not given far greater cause to God to be angry with us than anybody has given us to be angry with them.
5. Righteous anger does not savor being angry as though God were not sovereign, as though he cannot lift this burden from us and turn all things for his glory.
When Paul was imprisoned in Rome, he put the emphasis not on becoming bitter and angry that his ministry has been frustrated and stopped. Instead, he went way out of his way to show how God was turning it all for good and that what had happened to him was advancing the gospel (Philippians 1:12).
6. Righteous anger does not savor being angry as though God were not the judge. God is the judge who will one day settle all accounts with perfect righteousness so that we don’t need to (and shouldn’t) become vengeful. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him’” (Romans 12:19–20).
But I want to end with one more thing. Let me just say once more that the older I get the more angry I am at my reflexive self-justifying anger. Yet I don’t think that even my anger at my anger is a very redemptive remedy.