Heath Lambert: One of the problems that everyone faces is the issue of anger. Absolutely every person knows what it means to be angry. Everybody knows what it feels like to be angry and everybody knows what it is to experience someone else who is angry. We can experience it as people explode in a fit of rage or we can experience it as they freeze us out in icy rejection. But we all know what it is to live in the midst of the problem of anger and Amy Evenson is with us this week to ask us some questions about the sinfulness of anger.
Amy Evenson: Heath, as you said anger is a struggle for many people and in John 2 we learn that when Jesus cleanses the temple, it appears that he is angry. Does this give Christians an excuse to be angry and does this mean that there is some anger that isn’t sinful?
Heath Lambert: That is a very important question. I think you are right, in John 2 Jesus is angry, Jesus is God, and the Psalms tell us that God is angry every day at the wicked. So we can’t say that Jesus is wrong in his anger; we have to say that Jesus is the son of God and he never sinned so his display of wrath there in the temple is a righteous display of anger. That means that there is a category of righteous anger because God is angry, Jesus is angry. There is some category of righteous anger, the question is does that allow Christians to be angry? I think the Bible does teach us that there is such a thing as righteous anger. In Ephesians 4:26 it says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…” This is a text that is not talking about Jesus, it is a command to you and me and everybody listening. It is actually a command to be angry, it is just a command to be angry and not have sin accompany our anger. So this means that it is possible not just for God but for people to experience the emotion of anger and have that experience be something other than sinful, but instead actually be righteous.
Amy Evenson: How do I know when I have crossed over from righteous anger to sinful anger?
Heath Lambert: Well I think that first of all we should be very suspicious of ourselves. So, when we are asking the question, ‘how do I know if my anger is sinful or righteous?’ we ought to be suspicious of ourselves. It is very easy for people to assume the best about our emotions and our experience. The Bible does not give us any warrant for that assumption; the Bible teaches us that our hearts are desperately wicked and beyond cure. So we ought to wonder when we have an experience whether it is right, we should not jump to the conclusion that it is. So, it could be that our experience of anger is righteous, but it is very likely that it is not righteous. If we are going to check our careful assumption about whether we are angry – I think there is a number of ways we can do that – I’ll mention a few here:
I just talked about Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…” I think that in the immediate context there gives us a clue for how we might avoid sinful anger, “…don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” What that is saying – that is not literal – that is not saying if you and I are in an argument at 7:30 and the sun sets at 7:35 and we are still in a disagreement and I am angry at 7:36 that I have now violated this text. The point is that you need to settle matters quickly with your accuser; you need to deal with anger quickly. And so I think one indicator that our anger is righteous and not sinful is that we are not brooding, we are not holding on to this for a long time, but we are wanting to deal with it quickly. The kind of anger that is still angry days, weeks, months, years after the event is anger that is sinful.
Another indicator is just a little bit later in the context in Ephesians 4, it says in verse 31-32, “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.” So here this is an interesting text because verse 26 says “be angry” and then in verse 31 it tells us to put away all kinds of manifestations of anger. I think that underlines the point I was just making about verse 26 that you need to deal with this quickly you ought not let it linger. It also is telling us the way we put away anger and in the context it is by being kind to one another, tenderhearted, and forgiving one another.
So our anger is righteous when it moves toward reconciliation. When I say “I want to forgive you I want us to be reconciled, that is righteous. The kind of anger that says, “I will never forgive you for this” is the kind of anger that is not what we see in Ephesians 4:31-32 and is sinful.
One other indicator I think that we could see – and it has to do with God’s anger – our anger is righteous when we are angry about what makes God angry. God gets angry at sin. So when we are angry at sin that is a big indicator that our anger is righteous, it is not the only indicator; we might hold on to it, we might not be interested in moving towards reconciliation, we might have a display of wrath that is sinful where I use fowl speech or something like that. But the first indicator is, am I angry about sin? This means that I ought to not be the kind of person who is angry about my preference. If you do something that is not the way I would prefer it to be but is not a sin, then I am not angry about what makes God angry. That is a huge warning light alerting me that my anger is sinful. So those are a few indicators that help us stay away from sinful anger and moving in the direction of righteous anger.
Amy Evenson: So when I first feel myself getting angry, what should I do?
Heath Lambert: So the reason this is a good question is because we don’t want to just figure out whether my anger is righteous or sinful, I want to know how to deal with it if it is sinful. I think the first thing that I need to do when I am aware that I am getting angry is that I need to evaluate what is happening. This will usually require something like a prayer, an immediate prayer to the Lord, “Lord I am feeling angry. I am feeling frustrated. Would you give me wisdom to evaluate whether this is sinful or righteous.” That doesn’t have to be a verbal prayer that you say out loud, it could be a silent prayer that you utter even while somebody is looking at you – even the person who is making you angry – and you can ask for wisdom.
This is a promise that God gives us in James 1 that if you ask for wisdom and don’t doubt but believe, God will give you wisdom. That promise is not a promise that comes to us in these private tranquil moments when we are alone and peaceful, it is a promise that is true when we are in the heat of battle and I feel anger welling up in my soul and I don’t know what to do. We can just take a couple of beats and say, “Lord help me. Am I being selfish in this anger or is this about sin and am I moving toward righteousness in that?” Then we need to remember some of those indicators that I talked about: is this about a sin? Am I wanting to deal with this or am I wanting to run away and hold on to it? Am I wanting to move toward someone in forgiveness or am I wanting to run away and avoid reconciliation? Am I tempted to do other sinful things like say curse words or slander someone or physically harm someone? Some manifestations of anger that are going to always be sinful.
I need to evaluate what I am doing and come to a conclusion, is this sinful or righteous? If I check out on everything and it is righteous anger, then I need to proceed. I need to try to resolve rightly the matter; I need to confront a sinner or I need to confront a sinful situation. If I am finding that I don’t check out on all those areas and that I am guilty or potentially guilty of sinful anger then I probably need to step back. It is a hallmark of wisdom and patience in the grace of God to say to someone in the midst of a difficult situation, “Do you I know what? I need to think about this a little bit, I need to pray about this a little bit. Could we take a break and we get back together at some other point.” If it is with your spouse you get back together relatively quickly, maybe it is something at work, but it is not wrong – in fact it is often good – to try to buy some time.
The other thing I would say about this is if you’re finding that this is a situation that you struggle with repeatedly, that anger is kind of a default emotion for you then you are going to need to get ahead of it in some way. You can’t always bow out of a situation and get more time. You are going to need to think about how you are going to get help with this. Usually getting help and getting ahead of it is going to mean involving somebody else in your struggle; going to someone that you love and that you trust and who is full of Christian wisdom and saying, “This is a struggle that I am dealing with, how can you help?”