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The Myth of “Righteous Anger”: What the Bible Says About Human Anger

Submitted by on October 19, 2015 – 2:48 pm68 Comments

I. INTRODUCTION

This essay chiefly aims to describe what the Bible, and especially the New Testament, actually says about human anger. This is the main goal of my study. At the end and as a second purpose, I will offer some personal and pastoral reflections on anger in our lives, and how to deal with it (rather than deny or ignore it).

Let me invite my reader to read my first sentence again; in fact, I’ll just repeat it myself: “This essay chiefly aims to describe what the Bible, and especially the New Testament, actually says about human anger.” I decided to repeat myself because as I have been talking with other Christians, some clergy and some lay, about this study and about what I’ve been finding in the Scriptures, most people have objected to and at times even instinctively rejected the clear, simple answer to the question, “What does the Bible, and chiefly the NT, say about anger?” These friends and colleagues have not wanted to talk about what the Bible actually says about anger. They’ve wanted to move quickly, instinctively to other topics. People have offered special circumstances, or qualified the scriptural testimony—seemingly anything to avoid being confronted by the answer to a question that, once you search for it, is not hard to find and is really quite clear. If I may speak frankly, without exception my Christian friends and colleagues have wanted to justify their anger; each time they have done this, they have appealed to the category of “righteous anger.” And, to be sure, their comments and qualification have not been without merit, and that’s why I’ll conclude this essay with some reflections of a more personal and pastoral nature.

For Christians, however, when the Scriptures speak to an issue extensively and clearly, that’s the place where the discussions should start, and not somewhere else. So, let me say it again. This essay chiefly aims to describe what the Bible, and chiefly the New Testament, says about human anger—and that teaching is pretty clear and pretty direct.

There are four reasons why I decided to do this (fairly basic) study. The first is quite personal: I have a temper, and I regularly am angry. What I have observed about myself when I am angry is that I rarely do or say the wise or loving thing if I simply act out of the anger. To be sure, when I am angry I have lots of energy to do things—do something—but in the times that I have acted in anger or have been chiefly motivated by it, the things I have chosen to do turned out badly and hurtfully for others every time.

The second motivation for this study arose from my initial impressions from reading the New Testament. There is, of course, Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in which he equates being angry with one’s fellow disciples with murder, rendering us fully liable to God’s eschatological judgment (Mt 5:21‒26). This in itself is quite enough to invite further study. I became curious, about gaining a fuller grasp of the biblical witness.

Third, in my own involvement in the life arena, I have become more aware than ever before of how often “pro-lifers” speak and write and act in ways that flow directly from their own anger.[1] In a practical sort of way, it seems pretty clear that angry speaking or acting will rarely prove persuasive or helpful; it only preaches to the choir of other “pro-lifers” who are also angry. So, I decided that I would like to do something to change the tenor and tone of things. Ironically, the few times I have tried to teach such “pro-lifers” about the New Testament’s teaching about anger, these persons became angry at me and (I am not proud to say) I in return was angry at them. This motivated me to think and study more about the topic.

Gibbs Anger pull quote 1Finally, I am quite convinced that the United States of America in the twenty-first century is a profoundly angry culture, and in contemporary discourse anger (often labeled “outrage”) is almost regarded as a virtue. When someone with whom we agree “goes off on” someone with whose position we disagree, we applaud the anger, the belittling, the demeaning words. One factor that seems clearly (at least to me) to be at work behind the distressing number of shootings and mass murders in our country is the generally angry and violent tone of significant aspects of our culture.[2] As Christians, if I am correct about this, we find ourselves living in an angry culture, and there is a great danger that the culture’s catechesis about anger will affect and infect the church.

For all of these reasons, then, I’ve spent some time learning about what the Bible says about anger. I’ll begin with a cursory look at some texts and tendencies in the Old Testament, and then spend more focused attention on the New Testament.[3] As I said above, following the Scripture study I’ll devote some space to personal and pastoral applications. For we cannot deny that we all get angry; to pretend otherwise would be folly. All we can do is learn what God’s word says about it, and then try to apply that teaching in life-giving ways that seek to love even our enemies, as Jesus taught.

II. HUMAN ANGER IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

A. Divine Anger in the OT

Even though this study is focused on human anger, one really has to summarize what the Old Testament says like this: anger rightly belongs to God. I did not even attempt to examine all of the different ways that Hebrew (or Aramaic) can express that someone is angry. To be quite honest, I simply looked at a decent English concordance and found all of the times “anger/angry” or “wrath/wrathful” occurred in the Hebrew Scriptures. What I found is that the strong majority of references to anger refer, in fact, to God’s anger. God’s anger is referred to at least three times as often as all the different sorts of references to human anger (more on that below). In the Old Testament God is angry, most of the time, because of the sin of Israel as well as the sin of the nations.

In the biblical view, of course, God’s anger or wrath is always “righteous anger”; he is, after all, God. Since this study aims to describe the biblical teaching on human anger, I won’t even begin to grapple with the important theological topics that connect to a discussion of the divine wrath. I would like to offer one observation, however, and I do so in order to mitigate or counter what might be a very easy mistake to make after one becomes aware of the (literally) hundreds of times that the Old Testament refers to God’s anger or wrath.

The mistake would be to think that the God of the Old Testament, who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is quickly or easily or routinely angered. To be sure, one hesitates to describe the living God in terms too predictable. Nevertheless, in thinking about God’s anger, the divine self-revelation that occurs in Exodus 34:6‒7 must never be left behind.[4] It reads,

The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”[5]

A simple syllogism cannot be used as a comprehensive OT theology, nor can it be used to put God in a box. Nevertheless, there is validity to the following reasoning:

  1. Yahweh is slow to anger, as he himself declares.
  2. Yahweh is often angry in the OT, especially with his own people, Israel.
  3. Therefore, human creatures (and especially Israel) have given Yahweh plenty of reason to be angry; one must never underestimate how grievously Yahweh has been provoked.

In an indirect yet eloquent way, then, the sheer frequency of the OT’s mentioning of God’s anger, coupled with God’s own self-revelation, underscores how deeply and enduringly and constantly humans, and especially God’s own covenant people, have sinned against their God![6]

B. Human Anger in the OT

If the OT speaks far more often about the divine wrath/anger, what does it say about the subject of human anger? Again, I have only brief comments to make, but I can organize them to make three basic points.

First, there are OT texts that mention human anger in a natural way, almost in passing, and without explicitly passing judgment or evaluating it. These tend to be historical narrative texts, although not all of them are. Typical examples follow:

(Joseph, to his brothers) And now, do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. (Gn 45:5)

Now Moses diligently inquired about the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it was burned up! And he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the surviving sons of Aaron. (Lv 10:16)

The terror of a king is like the growling of a lion; whoever provokes him to anger forfeits his life. (Prv 20:2)

Second, there are a very few texts in which one might conclude that there is such a thing as human anger that is justified or praiseworthy or (to use the well-known phrase) “righteous anger.”[7] To be sure—and this is important—there is nowhere any direct discussion or endorsement of “righteous anger.” I will return to that toward the end of this essay. Nevertheless, in many popular presentations Moses seems to be the classic example of “righteous anger,” and Exodus 32:19 is the classic text:

And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’s anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.[8]

Another possible quarry from which one might carve out a notion of “righteous, human anger” is some of the psalms. One thinks, for instance, of Psalm 139:21‒22:

Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.

The psalmists display the complete range of human emotion, and for that reason (and others) the psalms are beloved by God’s people. It would be a little simplistic, however, to conclude that because a certain emotion is displayed (directly or indirectly) in a psalm, that this is a general endorsement of that emotion. Just as the benediction on those who kill Babylonian babies by smashing them against rocks has to be carefully handled (Ps 137:9), so does the display of emotions in the psalms.

Third, there is abundant OT material that associates human anger with sin or as causing sin. One thinks, for instance, of Cain’s reaction to Abel his brother:

So Cain was very angry and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Gn 4:5b‒6)

Then there is the example of Jonah the prophet:

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jon 4:1‒4)[9]

Many other texts portray or describe human anger in theologically or spiritually negative terms.[10] There is, of course, one OT book that offers extensive commentary on human anger, and that is the book of Proverbs. In the main, Proverbs links anger with foolishness and with a destructive influence over human relationships. Typical are the following:

A man of quick temper acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated. (14:17)

A soft answer turns way wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (15:1)

A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention. (15:18)

Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. (16:32)

Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. (19:11)

Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare. (22:23‒24)

Perhaps the most eloquent passage comes from Psalm 37:7‒11. Exhibiting clear “wisdom” characteristics, this psalm of David actually gives pause to those who too quickly suggest that we should be outraged or angry when we see evildoers prospering:

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. (emphasis added)

C. Summary of Human Anger in the OT

This brief look at (divine and) human anger in the OT is suggestive and it prepares the way for a closer survey of the New Testament. In no way does the New Testament teach differently; rather, the same trajectories are developed and in some ways intensified. I realize that there are complexities and qualifications, and I know that life is complicated. Nevertheless, the following summary of Wisdom teaching gathers the important thoughts together:

Only the Wisdom literature attempts a true evaluation of human anger. . . . Anger is dangerous because it does mischief and has evil consequences, Prv 6:34; 15:1; 16:14; 19:19; 27:4. It is thus to be avoided and placated . . . . There is warning against even understandable anger at the prosperity of the wicked, whose punishment will come, 24:19f; Ps 37:7‒9. Hence the longsuffering man . . . is lauded as the true sage . . . while the angry man . . . is condemned as a fool.[11]

III. HUMAN ANGER IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

In the New Testament writings, twenty different Greek words or phrases are used to communicate the semantic sub-domain of “Anger, Be Indignant With,” and I have examined the ninety occurrences of these words or phrases.[12] Although various terms or phrases express the general meaning, 50 percent of the time (45 out of 90) the NT uses the noun ὀργή (35 times), the verb ὀργίζομαι (9 times), or the adjective ὀργιλός (once). When you add to that sub-total the uses of the noun θυμός (18 times) and the verb θυμόομαι (once), words formed on these two stems (ὀργ- and θυμ-) account for the strong majority of texts (71 percent).[13] All of the remaining 15 Greek terms occur only once or twice, with the sole exception of the verb ἀγανακτέω, “to be indignant,” which occurs 7 times.

A. Divine Anger in the NT

This examination of NT texts should begin with the same observation with which my brief survey of OT texts began: when “anger” is the topic, a large number of NT passages refer to God’s anger, either with reference to the Father or (occasionally) the Son. About 38 times, “anger” words in the NT refer to God’s anger; twice Jesus is explicitly said to be angry (Mk 3:5) or indignant (Mk 10:14). There are also other narrative passages where it seems clear that the Christ is angry. One thinks of John 2:13‒17, especially because Jesus makes the whip with which he drives people out of the temple precincts. One quickly recalls also Matthew 23:13‒36 where it is hard to read the woes against the scribes and Pharisees without attributing anger to Jesus. Most of the time, however, it is God (the Father) who is angry, or whose wrath comes upon the world in some way, or whose eschatological judgment is promised because he is angry.[14] As in the OT’s descriptions of divine anger, so in the NT. God’s anger is righteous and justified, simply because he is God. In the case of Jesus of Nazareth who was like us in every way yet without knowing any sin (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15), we acknowledge that his anger was pure and righteous, with no taint of sin.

But what of human anger in general? What do the NT writings say about it? I will organize the data around three categories: (1) the anger of God’s enemies, (2) anger among Jesus’s disciples, and (3) “righteous anger.”

B. Human Anger in the NT

First, a significant number of texts portray or describe the enemies of God and his people as angry. For example, the synagogue crowd in Nazareth was “filled with wrath” and sought to kill Jesus (Lk 4:28‒29). Herod the Great became angry when he realized the magi had tricked him (Mt 2:16). Jesus’s opponents (Mt 21:15; Lk 6:11; 13:14), the Sanhedrin seeking to silence the apostles’ preaching (Acts 4:2; 5:33; 7:54), the arrogant Herod Antipas (Acts 12:20), the riotous pagan crowd in Ephesus (Acts 19:28), Saul/Paul the persecutor (Acts 26:11), and Pharaoh (Heb 11:27) all are depicted as angry or wrathful. Even more strikingly, the Revelation to John describes the nations who are opposed to God as raging against him (11:18), and the dragon-Satan is enraged because he sees his will being thwarted through the birth of the woman’s child (12:12, 17). Those who oppose and hate God and his Christ are fairly frequently described as angry.

Second, what about anger in the lives of Jesus’s disciples? Once again, the picture is dominated (with a few exceptions that I will note below) by negative portrayals, and by strongly worded teaching that warns against the spiritual dangers of anger in their lives. In terms of narrative texts, the ten disciples are indignant with the two sons of Zebedee, and in light of Jesus’s subsequent teaching their anger must be regarded as selfishly sinful or jealous (Mt 20:24‒28; Mk 10:41‒45). In their folly, the disciples also are indignant with the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany (Mt 26:8; Mk 14:4), and this too arises from misunderstanding and error; their indignation indicates sin.

Christ Jesus himself, as well as the other NT authors, explicitly teach about anger and warn of its spiritual dangers. The classic passage is, of course, from the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus teaches that at least in some important ways, being angry with and speaking angry insults against a fellow disciple is the same as murder, and it brings the same threat of eschatological judgment:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire.[15]

Let me say again that I do agree that there is a need to discuss the emotion of anger and how one might deal with it, and I will offer some thoughts to that effect.[16] Jesus’s words, however, must stand. He makes no distinction between being angry and sinning. To be angry with a fellow Christian is, in fact, sin and terrible sin at that.

This essentially negative teaching about anger is taken for granted elsewhere in the NT, so much so that “anger” or “wrath” can simply occur in lists of sins.[17]

For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger (θυμοί), hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Cor 12:20)

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger (θυμοί), rivalries, dissensions, division, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:20‒21)

Let all bitterness and wrath (θυμός) and anger (ὀργή) and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. (Eph 4:31)

But now, you must put them all away: anger (ὀργή), wrath (θυμός), malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Col 3:8)[18]

There are a variety of other statements in the NT that partake of this fundamental teaching. Prayers are to be offered in the Christian assemblies “without anger or quarreling” (1 Tm 2:8). In his powerful teaching on love, Paul insists that love is “not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor 13:5).[19] Fathers are not to “provoke their children to anger” as they raise them (Eph 6:14), and believers in general are not to “become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal 5:26).

One other passage is significant, and it should be fronted here, namely Romans 12:14‒21. Although the specific terms for anger do not occur in these verses, it seems clearly relevant—at least to me.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Gibbs Anger pull quote 2I might highlight only one thing about this remarkable exhortation, and it is this: There is a place for anger, and for vengeance. But it does not belong to the disciples of Jesus; that prerogative belongs to God alone.[20] As I heard someone say long ago, vengeance is too dangerous a weapon to be placed into the hands of sinners. This contrast is utterly consistent with how anger is portrayed, described, and mentioned in both the OT and the NT. Anger belongs to God, not to us humans—and especially not to the disciples of Jesus. Anger is dangerous, and quickly leads to sin. So close is this connection that at times, being or becoming angry is simply equated with sin. That is a remarkable truth, and should be restated, because no other emotion receives that sort of attention in the NT. The connection between being / becoming angry on the one hand and actually sinning on the other hand is so close that most of the time, Jesus and the apostles simply equate anger with sin.

Third, I come to the concept that so quickly arose when I spoke about this study to Christian friends and acquaintances. I’ll treat the issue in the form of a question. Is there a New Testament teaching on “righteous anger” on the part of humans and especially on the part of Jesus’s disciples? In a phrase, and to speak somewhat bluntly, not really. Yes, there are a few examples of believers who are angry and not censored or criticized theologically for it. In addition, there are two passages that do seem to concede to Christians the reality of anger, and to allow for the distinction between the emotion of anger and that anger actually becoming sin. But there is no actual teaching that Christians should expect to be able to experience “righteous anger,” and least not in the sense of “anger that has not led you into sin” or “anger that leaves you with no cause for repentance.” It’s just not there. And this fact is all the more remarkable because (at least in my limited experience) the category of “righteous anger” is a quick go-to category for many Christians.

Having pondered and read a bit, I’ve discovered that there is no “official” definition of human “righteous anger.” [21] Often the truth that God has anger/gets angry is appealed to, but this doesn’t help much, nor does an appeal to the perfect human, Jesus. We’re not talking about the divine wrath, but anger on the part of humans who are far from perfect. As I have asked a few people to describe what they mean, they often say that “righteous anger” is anger that arises because of something that is genuinely wrong or evil. When pressed, they admit that this can quickly become an excuse, because “righteous anger” seems to generally carry along with it the notion that if my anger is “righteous,” then I am not sinning. There is, as far as I can tell, no agreed-upon definition of “righteous anger.”[22]

Is the anger of Christians/disciples ever a good thing in the New Testament? In terms of narrative portraits of disciples’ anger in the NT that are positive or at least neutral, Paul’s reaction to the idolatry that was rampant in Athens has been mentioned above. Acts simply narrates the fact, and as far as the narrative runs, we see no evidence that Paul’s feeling of being provoked caused him to sin (Acts 17:16). Fair enough. There is also the irritation that Paul feels after a long period of being followed and harassed by the spirt-possessed slave girl in Philippi (Acts 16:18). As a result of his irritation, he exorcises the demon from the slave girl. This is actually an odd passage, because one wonders why Paul did not exorcise the demon sooner, but only waited until (apparently) he got mad. But that is a “gap” in the narrative that we are not able to fill with any certainty.

There is also the interesting reference in 2 Corinthians 7:10‒11, where it seems that repentant Christians are to be indignant or angry at themselves because of their own sins:

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation (ἀγανάκτησις), what fear, what longing.[23]

Finally, there are two well-known passages[24] that speak of anger, but scarcely in a way that commends it. Indeed, both passages reinforce the NT’s mostly negative testimony. Here is Ephesians 4:25‒27.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry, and do not sin; I command that the sun not go down on your anger; and give no opportunity to the devil.[25]

It does seem valid to remark that Paul here allows that anger is not automatically sinful. This is, however, hardly a rousing endorsement of “righteous anger.” To the contrary, so dangerous is anger that Paul immediately warns against sin. Indeed, the apostle hastens to add that unless a believer guards himself and gets rid of his anger, he has left an opportunity for the devil. It seems clear enough that Ephesians 4:26‒27 is part of the NT’s almost exclusively negative judgment of anger in man. Winger comments rightly,

The connection of anger and not sinning in this verse has led to the proposition that there can be “righteous anger” (as when God is angry with his sinful people), as if Paul were saying, “Be angry in such a way that you do not sin.” Yet the Scriptures rarely portray human anger as righteous . . . . It is worth considering the possibility that Paul intends [with the use of “be angry,” ὀργίζεσθε] “tremble” in accord with [Psalm 4:4’s] original meaning; that is, fear the wrath of God in such a way that you deal with the cause of sin and anger in the church community.”[26]

Does Ephesians 4:26‒27 “teach” the concept of human righteous anger? To repeat myself, “not really.” The other passage that is sometimes cited in support of claims about righteous anger is James 1:19‒20, which reads:

Know this, my beloved brothers; 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.

As with Ephesians 4:26‒27, the most one can say is that James here allows for the possibility of anger that is not sinful. After all, to be “slow to speak” does not mean “don’t speak at all”; so also, one might say to be “slow to anger” doesn’t mean “don’t ever be angry.” The clause that follows, however, reveals James’s understanding that human anger on the part of Jesus’s disciples is a dangerous proposition, and all too often fails to conform to the ways that God wants to put things right in the world. At most, “as in Eph. 4, the apparent concession is followed at once by the verse (20) which rejects anger.”[27]

The testimony of the NT barely acknowledges the presence or possibility of “righteous anger” in the sense that people normally use this phrase. There is certainly no direct teaching about or encouragement to such a thing. Whatever people may mean by “righteous anger,” it is a construct based on actions of various people (Moses, the prophets, Paul, etc.). But there is no such thing as a genuine, clear, biblical definition of or justification for “righteous anger”—unless the anger is the Father’s or the Son’s wrath.

Gibbs Anger pull quote 4Far more often—in fact, almost exclusively—Christians are warned about the dangers of anger. The texts rarely, if ever, distinguish between the emotion of anger and sinful thoughts or words or deeds that may arise from that emotion. Here, simply and clearly, is the New Testament’s teaching about human anger: it is spiritually dangerous, and at times it can straightforwardly be called sin. The only reason I have taken (perhaps) more space than was necessary to establish the presence of this teaching in the NT has been the amount of resistance that I experienced from pious, well-intentioned, well-informed Christians—all of whom happen to be Americans living in a culture that increasingly glorifies and praises anger.

IV. CONCLUSIONS AND REFLECTIONS

What can be said as a summary and reflection? These final comments will come in two parts. The first will gather and summarize the scriptural testimony. The second part will be my reflection on the fact that people—and not least Christians—do, in fact, become angry. Further, since anger on the part of non-perfect humans is such a volatile and potentially deadly reality, we need to learn to do something with our anger that is pleasing to God and not destructive for ourselves or our neighbor.

The Bible, and especially the New Testament, teaches straightforwardly that human anger is a common and dangerous reality in our lives. That is the dominant message, and it should be the dominant way that Christians think about their anger. It would be going too far, I believe, to say that the emotional reaction of anger is always and intrinsically sinful; it is not. It would not be going too far, however, to say that anger is always spiritually dangerous and that we need to deal with it seriously and piously. Anger is never extolled; it is not a fruit of the Spirit. As I noted above, the connection between anger and actual sin is so close that both Christ Jesus and his apostles can simply equate the two: anger in many New Testament texts simply is a form of sin.

This means that, if American society currently extols “outrage” and admires those who speak out of anger and who speak with angry words and insults, then believers must reject that cultural value. We have a responsibility to stand out and to be different, as salt and light. Even when we feel angry at the injustice or evil or immorality in the world around us, we are not to give free reign to that anger—and then justify our sin by labeling it “righteous anger.”

Is there such a thing as “righteous anger”? With regard to sinful human creatures, the answer is, “It is a theoretical possibility.” Nowhere, however, are we commanded to act in righteous anger and even when it seems a possibility (as with Eph 4:25‒27 or Jas 1:18‒19), there is an immediate warning against sinning. For what it’s worth, I suspect that the category of “righteous anger” most of the time is a smoke screen, an attempt to justify sarcasm and punitive actions and angry insults. Yes, in the case of Moses or Elijah or Paul, the texts do narrate that they were angry and then acted in response to evil of some sort. But this does not mean we should think that our anger is like theirs, or even that in their anger they did not sin at all. And if someone would like to appeal to the anger of Almighty God or of the Lord Jesus Christ in support for the category of “righteous anger,” the simple answer is that God is pure and unable to sin and the Lord Jesus Christ was perfect. And we are not.

Some have said to me, “But anger motivates you; it makes you get up and do something.” This is certainly true, at least in my experience. I ask in return, however: why should it take anger to get me out of my inertia? Why do I not find sufficient motivation in compassion or courage or mercy or simply the greatest fruit of the Spirit, love for my neighbor? The fact that it takes anger for me to actually do something strikes me not as a reason to extol anger, but as a reason to repent of my coldness of love and hardness of heart. My prayer should be, “Lord, fill me with love for my neighbor and for those in need, so that I may serve and help them.”

If a person has read this far, he or she might well say, “Fine, you’ve shown me what the Bible says about human anger. But the fact remains—I get mad. What do I do about that? What am I supposed to do with my anger?” I can share some thoughts, without any claim to originality.

In the first place, I do agree that we can begin with the notion that human emotions, including anger, are not intrinsically sinful. This is not a justification to remain angry. It does serve to establish the situation, however, so that I can say, “OK, I am angry; really angry. What do I do now?” It is of deepest importance that we are aware of our emotions and acknowledge that we have them. To be able to do so with a somewhat neutral stance is incredibly helpful.

The second point follows naturally on the first: anger has to be acknowledged. It is far worse to be angry and pretend that I am not. Anger denied often simply becomes anger under pressure—and as we all know, it grows and takes a toll. There are, by the way, a whole host of English terms (just as there are at least twenty Greek terms and phrases) that signify essentially the same thing. So, I would suggest that when I am irritated, or peeved, or outraged, or offended, or a bunch of other things—these are all merely different ways of saying that I am angry. And I need to own that, and then do something with it.

Third, what then shall we as Christians do with our anger? There is, of course, wise counsel in having a third party to whom I can express my anger. A safe and careful listener can be a great help in letting me dispel some of that energy inside of me, the energy that could so quickly manifest itself in the form of attacking another person rather than loving them. To use a somewhat homely image that I think I made up myself, expressing your anger in a safe place with a safe person is like vomiting into the toilet while someone holds your forehead. It’s hard, but you usually feel better afterwards, and you can think more clearly and more Christianly about what to do next.

Fourth, some anger in our lives is more deeply rooted. Some people are chronically angry. That sort of situation might call for a more deliberate and sustained effort at counseling, learning about oneself to discover why it is that anger is the reaction that so quickly comes to the surface. Even if I wouldn’t count myself as someone who is chronically angry, my marriage to my wife, Renee, has been instructive. Although Renee certainly has her faults and her flawed patterns of reacting to things, to become angry is not one of them; she is about the least angry person I know. This gives me an opportunity, at least, to ask myself, “Well, why is it that I react with anger? Here is another Christian person right next to me, and her reaction is a different one. What is it about my psychology or my patterns of thought or my life experience that leads me to becoming angry?” It’s an important question for all believers, I would think, and it has been important to me personally. This is where a professional, a skilled counselor, can be a wonderful blessing.

In the end, for a Christian the Bible’s teaching needs to lead the way. Anger is not to be extolled in our lives or in our discourse. Anger quickly becomes sin, and we simply must think in those terms. It is hard to do given the climate in which we find ourselves. We will have opportunities, however, to show ourselves to be different, Spirit-filled sorts of people who respond with good when others have done evil, who leave vengeance in the hands where it belongs—in God’s hands.

And this, of course, reminds me of the most important biblical teaching with regard to anger. God has provided a way for us to be saved from his righteous (!) wrath which will come upon a rebellious and sinful world on the last day. In gratitude and peace we lay claim to Paul’s beautiful “how much more” proclamation, even as we seek to live with our neighbors in ways that manifest the grace and compassion of God, leaving anger to the side:

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom 5:8‒11)

ENDNOTES

[1]Gibbs Anger pull quote 3 I have placed the phrase “pro-life/pro-lifers” in quotations because I, with others, have become convinced that it is no longer a useful way to speak. For better or worse, in our current context the phrase “pro-life” simply means “Republican” or “angry.” Whether those perceptions are accurate is not relevant; these perceptions are dominant. For my part, I am not a Republican, and as a Christian who wants to be comprehensively life-affirming, I am seeking to become less angry.

[2] Lest any of my readers become suspicious at this point, I assure everyone that my words here do not indicate a particular view or position regarding “gun control.” On the one hand, I am not a gun person and I confess that I do not really understand those perspectives; I need to learn more about them. On the other hand, I am a very large fan of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment. I realize, of course, that there are many debates swirling around these matters. In no way am I taking part in those debates here.

[3] I have made no real attempt to gather or examine texts where anger is present implicitly, either through the way an account is narrated or through use of terms that indirectly evoke the notion of “anger.” For example, I am quite sure that James 3:1-11 aims to curb and condemn the use of angry words. Since no “anger vocabulary” is used, however, I have not referred to those verses.

[4] J. Horst, “μακροθυμία κτλ,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) vol. IV, comments, “The set formula of Ex.34:6 echoes again and again through the biblical writings and into later Judaism.” It seems likely as well that God’s self-revelation as “slow to anger” serves as the background to various NT passages, especially perhaps Rom 2:4; 9:22.

[5] There are relatively clear echoes or references to Yahweh’s self-revelation to Moses at Nm 14:18; Ps 86:15; 103:8; Neh 9:17; Jl 2:13; Jon 4:2; Na 1:3; Ws 15:1.

[6] As my colleague Tom Egger reminds me, the truth that Yahweh is slow to anger can never be used to justify a decision to remain in sin, nor to predict when his anger will actually manifest itself.

[7] In common usage “righteous anger” seems to mean “justified anger” and often “non-sinful anger.” In addition, the phrase typically entails that anger is directed at something at which God himself is angry. This is the sense in which I will be using the phrase in this essay. I do find it odd that discussions of human “righteous anger” cite as supporting biblical passages places where God is righteously angry. In addition, people are quick to cite places where Jesus is angry in support of the concept of “righteous human anger.” My response to this is, “Yes, but none of us is Jesus.”

[8] Other possible examples of “righteous human anger” in the OT include Ex 11:8; Nm 16:15; 31:14; 1 Sm 11:6; Jb 32:2‒5; Ps 2:12. Perhaps most striking is the story of Phineas’s zeal in killing an idolatrous and adulterous Israelite and his pagan partner. Phineas and his descendants receive a covenant of priestly service because he “was jealous with my [i.e., God’s] jealousy” (Nm 25:11). The context makes it crystal clear that Yahweh’s jealousy included his anger over Israel’s apostasy (Nm 25:3-4).

[9] As the narrative continues, of course, Jonah gets angry again when the plant Yahweh sent to shelter him from the shade withers and dies. He insists that it is right for him to get angry—a claim that in turn withers under the gracious logic of his God who is slow to anger (Jon 4:5‒11).

[10] See Gn 27:45; 30:2; 49:6‒7; Nm 22:27; 24:10; Dt 32:21, 27; Jgs 9:30; 18:25; 1 Sm 25:32‒35; Est 1:12, 18; 3:5; Jb 5:2; Ps 55:3; 78:10.

[11] J. Fichtner, “The Wrath of Men and the Wrath of God in the Old Testament,” TDNT V, 395.

[12] See Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, vol. 1 (United Bible Societies, 1989), 761‒763.

[13] The concentration around the stems ὀργ- and θυμ- is even stronger when compound forms are taken into account: παροργισμός (once), παροργίζω (twice), θυμομαχέω (once).

[14] An interesting use of ὀργή occurs in Rom 13:4‒5. There “the governing authorities” (13:1) seem to manifest or inflict the divine wrath on evildoers. At the same time, then, Paul seems to be referring to God’s anger as well as the anger of the civil authorities.

[15] For a discussion on how anger is not like (literal) murder in every way, see Gibbs, Matthew 1:1‒11:1, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 276‒279, 284‒285.

[16] As far as I am aware, the Bible never explicitly articulates the modern (and, I think, mostly valid) distinction between experiencing an emotion such as anger or fear or loneliness and what one does with that emotion. I do think the distinction is valid. I also am of the opinion, however, that the distinction can be used as an excuse for sinning, especially with regard to anger.

[17] In the list of qualifications for those who would be overseers and God’s stewards, Paul touches on anger: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered (ὀργιλός) or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain” (Ti 1:7).

[18] Notice that either the singular (Eph 4:31; Col 3:8) or the plural (2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20‒21) noun can be employed to refer to anger which is sinful.

[19] The verb, “to become irritated” (παροξύνομαι) occurs also in Acts 17:16, where Paul’s spirit “was provoked” within him when he saw how idolatrous Athens was. I’ll return to the Acts 17 reference below.

[20] Romans 13:4‒5 does teach that civil authorities will enact God’s anger against wrongdoers—at least if the authorities are doing what they should be doing.

[21] A quick search on the web shows many Bible studies and Christian discussions of “righteous anger.” Most if not all claim that human anger is righteous when it is arises from something that also makes God angry. Other factors, such as purity of motive sometimes are discussed as well, and the example of Jesus’ anger is also frequently mentioned.

[22] In an internet search for “righteous anger” a number of Bible studies pop up, and from the few that I have surveyed, no clear definition emerges. Herman Kleinknecht, “ὀργή, κτλ,” (TDNT V, 384) while noting the occasional reference in Greek thought to a “moral wrath which protects against evil and which is sometimes expressly called δίκαια ὀργή,” immediately states that even in in Greek thought anger “came under a predominately negative judgment.”

[23] The noun ἀγανάκτησις, “indignation,” occurs only here in the NT. It is cognate with the verb, “to be indignant”; see Matt 20:24 and parallels.

[24] As I have been discussing this essay with colleagues and friends as it has developed, Eph 4:26a has been the almost universal rejoinder to “prove” that there such a thing as righteous anger. Rarely, I might add, did anyone also cite Eph 4:26b-27.

[25] In italics I have offered my own translation of the Greek. In English, the familiar rendering, “and do not let the sun go down on your anger” can be understood as “don’t allow this to happen.” In Greek, however, it is a third-person imperative and in this hortatory context, it has the force that I have offered.

[26] Thomas Winger, Ephesians (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2015), 522. Gustav Stählin, “The Wrath of Man and the Wrath of God in the NT, TDNT, V, 421, comments, “In Eph 4:26 . . . [the imperative “be angry”] by no means has the full force of an imperative, for it is a quotation (Ps.4:4) according to the sense given by the LXX. Thus it is better to translate, not: “Be angry for my sake but do not sin,” but: “If you are angry, be careful not to sin.” Anger is not called sin here, but there lies in the background the thought that when one is angry sin crouches at the door. For this reason there is added: ὁ ἥλιος μὴ ἐπιδυέτω ἐπὶ παροργισμῷ ὑμῶν. The quotation is to be read in the light of the saying five verses later (v.31), with its repudiation of πᾶσα ὀργή [“all anger”].”

[27] Stählin, “Wrath of Man,” 421.

68 Comments »

  • John Schultz says:

    Thanks Jeff, wonderful exposition and exploration of this topic. I too have often wondered about what may define “righteous anger” in the human experience. From those who have written about that, I’m not sure they have been on firm exegetical footing.

    In your description of our American culture, I couldn’t help but think how “offended” everyone claims to be over everything these days! Thanks Austin!

    • John Schultz says:

      Again, not “Austin”

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      John,

      Yes, I’ve thought about the connections between “taking offense” and “being angry.” Part of it is the issue of defining terms. That’s why I took the easy way out, and let the lexicon do it for me. Hope that doesn’t make you mad . . .

      Thanks for writing!

      Jeff

  • Mark Squire says:

    Dr. Gibbs-

    Thank you for your hard work and careful search of the Scriptures. I do find it telling that the first mention of anger in the Scriptures happens right before the first murder. May that be a warning for us all!

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Mark,

      Thanks for writing! Yes, there should be a “danger” sign posted all around our anger. And it happens SO quickly–“thought, word, and deed.”

      Peace,

      Jeff

  • Richard Davenport says:

    Thanks for the article, Dr. Gibbs.

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. I’m curious what your definition of the word “anger” is. Obviously, the word shows up throughout Scripture, but what actually falls into that category? We might throw in words like rage (or outrage, as you suggest), madness, hatred, and so forth, but are those words actually connected in Scripture? Is it, perhaps, part of our problem that we’re using the word in a broader sense than Scripture ever does?

    2. Second, presumably when God uses anger it is for our good and the good of creation. Are you saying it is never possible for humans to use anger for good as well? Being created in the image of God and given stewardship over creation might also indicate that appropriately-used anger is given to us as well. As you say, “None of us is Jesus.” However, if John 2 really is an instance of righteous/divine anger and anger is not given for human use, then no human could ever have cleared the temple in that way, even though it gives every indication of been a God-pleasing act.

    Perhaps some food for further investigation.

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Richard,

      Thanks for writing, friend. It’s a hard thing to define–that’s why I went with an (arguably simplistic) approach of relying on the Louw and Nida lexicon. I tend to think that, in general, anger is like art: I may not know it, but I recognize it when I see it.

      No, I would not say it is absolutely impossible for human to use anger for good. It’s just that there is a strong weight of direct teaching that should make “righteous anger” a minor sort of category, rather one to which people quickly default.

      As ever,

      Jeff

  • Travis Sherman says:

    John Kleinig has some interesting observations on the topic from a pastoral/spiritual perspective.

    In the notes for his “Christian Spirituality” class, he observes “Anger in itself is not evil, since God himself gets angry at the injustice and evil which damages and destroys the world that he loves…. Since anger registers and identifies hurt it is, in itself, a good from God.” (http://www.johnkleinig.com/files/3013/8984/3619/SpirCourse_09.pdf; [in the section C.1.d The Practice of Reconciliation]).

    He quickly points out, however, that it is so dangerous for us sinners that we must not attempt to wield it ourselves. In fact, drawing on imagery from Rev 12 and Satan as the accuser of God’s people, he calls anger, especially at fellow believers, Satan’s “back door attack [in which he] attempts to gain a secret foothold by attacking our love for our fellow Christians, our brothers and sisters in Christ.” (Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace, 234). Kleinig shows how Satan uses the reaction caused by a hurt done to us to brood over the offense, to fuel our anger and desire for justice, to confirm in our hearts that we are in the right and they are wrong, replaying it over and over, leading to “bitterness and resentment,” then “outrage, hatred and lust for revenge….Satan has us where he wants us. Once hatred sets in, he can slowly and patiently dislodge us from the Church and from Christ.” (234-235).

    I think it would be helpful to read Dr. Gibbs’s essay along with chapter four of Grace Upon Grace, especially the section entitled “The Hidden Enemy.” In addition, you can listen to Dr. Kleinig lecture on this topic here: http://www.johnkleinig.com/files/3512/9141/1934/CS13b.mp3. Together, these are really helpful resources, both personally and pastorally.

    (And the vomiting image will be stolen for bible study and preaching one of these days. Thank you for that visceral picture!)

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Travis,
      Thanks for your thoughtful post, and for alerting me to John Kleinig’s work. He’s a super insightful guy, coming from several directions (biblical, systematic, pastoral, etc.).

      I do find it a little more difficult than apparently many people, however, to move from “God’s anger is righteous and good, just because it’s God’s” to “so, our anger is at least neutral, and can be good.” The divine wrath seems to be able to exist co-equally (so to speak) with divine grace and compassion . . . or something like that. I’m a bit reluctant to draw many conclusions about our anger from truths that hold with regard to God’s anger.

      And yes–“emotional vomiting” is free for use as a public domain metaphor!

      As ever,

      Jeff

  • Christopher Lieske says:

    Dr. Gibbs,
    Thank you for this paper. it has certainly spurred me to think about the issue with more rigor than I otherwise might.

    I’m quoting Placher writing about Aquinas here, but I wonder if it might be helpful when considering the topic of anger. Placher writes in The Triune God on page 17, “We can talk about God correctly, Aquinas acknowledged, but when we do we literally do not understand what we are saying.” He’s considering what we can know and say about God. The point being, we cannot understand God, yet we need a way to speak about the Almighty.

    So we speak (and the Scripture speaks) of God’s anger, but that does not necessarily mean that God’s anger is the same thing as human anger. In fact, it seems likely that it is not, in fact, cannot be, since, to quote Dr. Okamoto, “God is God and I am not.”

    Thus, to describe God as angry is roughly akin to a blind man explaining to another blind man what purple is. He does the best to use what is accessible to him within his realm of experience, but may have no idea what he’s actually saying, even as he says it.

    We can speak of God being angry; in fact, we should, because the Scriptures do. But other than that this in some (not entirely understood) way approximates our experience of “anger,” we have no idea what we’re talking about.

    In any case, as I said earlier, this is great. I thank you for writing.

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Christopher,

      Thank you for this way of expressing what I was thinking. I just sort of instinctively resisted what seemed for others an “easy” move from “God is angry at something, so I can and should be angry, too.”

      To be sure, the psalms sometimes to speak in ways that are very close to this, so one can’t go too far; as you saw, I don’t want to obviate all possibility of “righteous anger” on our part. but it is a very tenuous category, and should not be a primary way (or perhaps, even as secondary way) of thinking about our anger.

      I appreciate the comment!

      In peace,

      Jeff

    • Jena Gorham says:

      I was thinking something similar in reading the article. Although we are created in God s image, that does not me we can anthropomorphize God and make him in our image. we cannot assume that God s anger is an emotion, for example. In fact , it appears based on this article that s God s anger is more of an action connected to a judgment, than it is an emotion. Our anger however, appears to be much more rooted in emotion. An emotion that can spure action, but that originated as emotion. I think God s anger is more of a state of his intolerance for injustice and sin.
      That being said, as I understand it, human anger is an emotional response to hurt and is satisfying in that it makes up feel more powerful and less vulnerable. Anger is a very powerful emotion, when you are hurt you are likely to feel vulnerable and helpless- anger is often how we deal with these feelings. it instantly makes us feel more powerful and less vulnerable to get really angry. make sense? As Christians we can check ourselves by being aware of this and confessing that we are indeed week and powerless in ourselves- but that in Christ we are made strong. It is in him that we are allowed to feel protected, strong, defended, and untouchable.

    • Jena Gorham says:

      I forgot to say “Bravo- well done”

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Jena (who commented below),

      Your comments appear below this reply, but I can’t figure out how to put this response in closer connection to your words. I did want to respond, however, and this is the best that this digitally-challenged guy can do!

      I agree that the “image of God in man” should not be pressed into service in this discussion of “righteous anger.” In Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9, it is the “image of God” in my NEIGHBOR that is to prevent me from harming or cursing him; this is the opposite of saying, “I can be angry with my neighbor because I bear God’s image.”

      I do also quite agree with you that anger arises as a reaction to being hurt or threatened. That insight alone is worth gold–I can be aware of it, ask where I perceive the threat or hurt coming from, and seek to live in Christ’s good news in such away that the anger subsides. Obviously, it can take a long time–but that’s the path.

      Thank you for your words, and your encouragement.

      In Christ,

      Jeff Gibbs

  • Joe Watson says:

    Professor Gibbs, thank you for this article. I also have been deceived many times into thinking that my anger was righteous when it was indeed sinful. I am reminded of the incident in 1 Sam 25 when David was angry with Nabal and was planning to do violence against him: David blessed Abigail for her wisdom in appeasing his anger, which caused David to refrain from carrying out his planned vengance. We could all learn a lesson from Abigail’s courage and David’s response.

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Joe,

      Yes, I, too thought of David and Nabal, and Abigail’s ‘rescue’ of David from his own angry folly.

      Hope all is well.

      Jeff

  • Joel Dieterichs says:

    Wow! Very instructional, much needed counter-cultural sermon. Thank you for sharing this, pastor (and I feel like calling you pastor in this case). Just a brief comment: you cause me to think of my saddest chapter a handful of years ago, and the vile anger and hatred I felt for a certain ex-wife. And then remarkably for myself as well, as anger for another turned to anger at myself, followed by intensely suicidal thoughts and, at one point, a suicidal plan. It was then the Lord’s gracious Word came to remembrance (John 14:26) by the Holy Spirit and I rose up from my place of extreme anger at the world and lived in faith once again. It was then I saw experientially what you are saying theologically in this article. Anger is the Enemy’s tool, used prolifically for preventing God’s kingdom and disavowing His Name, destruction, war, etc.

    Actions taken from anger, as I practiced in the legal proceedings against her at times, led only to anger on her part, then despair. But how the Shepherd drew near to me and fed me then, and picked me up.

    So…may you also feel & know His great forgiveness for the times you have been angry, good Doctor! Indeed, look at how much He loves us! Blessings,

    Joel

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Joel,

      Thank you so much, brother, for offering beautiful and tender comments. How grateful I am that the Lord has brought (and is bringing) you through into places of light and peace. His grace is sufficient for you, and for me. As I read your words, I thought of 1 John 3: Look at what sort of love the Father has for us, that we should be called God’s children . . . and so we are. In Christ.

      Jeff

  • Mark Brown says:

    Being confronted with the truth just makes me so angry. 🙂

    Other than cutting the knees out of my one verifiable skill, maybe one thought. If there was one OT guy that would seem to have had recourse to justifiable anger it would seem to have been Jeremiah (Jer 20:7), yet his response was lamentation. And this is the one aspect of scripture that has been banished from the modern American church. Off to the right of our pulpit, over the organist’s head, I’ve got this stained glass window with what I’d call the Christ of Sorrows. I can’t help reflecting on it some Sunday’s that this window, so out of step with relevancy, is the most relevant. Lamentation both acknowledges the anger, gives it an outlet and biblical patterns like those psalms and Jeremiah’s book.

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Mark,

      Thanks for this way of identifying “some reaction other than anger.” Obviously we all have emotions, and they just are–by definition they are spontaneous, and you can’t control them in the normal sense of “control.”

      But as I wrote about myself, I would like to be a person who would respond to evil or loss or tragedy with sorrow, or lament, or concern, or courage. And less anger.

      As ever,

      Jeff

  • Nathan Rinne says:

    Dr. Gibbs,

    First of all, I agree with many (most) of the insights and arguments in your article – particularly your practical advice in the end.

    Second, may I be so bold to push back a bit? (please note: this all coming from a person who personally sees little if any righteous anger in himself) Some questions…

    Why should the element of emotion – that so clearly lies behind the words in the Psalms – not also be taken as being from God? Including what clearly seems like anger?

    You said: “…in the case of Moses or Elijah or Paul, the texts do narrate that they were angry and then acted in response to evil of some sort. But this does not mean we should think that our anger is like theirs, or even that in their anger they did not sin at all.”

    And I agree. In like fashion, even though desire for one’s spouse is good (even better than anger, which would not have existed in a pre-fall state) that does not mean it can ever be totally pure. So this being said about anger (its lack of purity), doesn’t the fact remain that they were right to be angry, and that the sinfulness of their anger is made pure through the blood of the Son? In like fashion, it is good for one to desire one’s wife, even though ever purer blood-covered desire should be sought. Do you think that this is a productive way of looking at these matters?

    Finally, the real practical problem here, as I see it: if human righteous anger “is a theoretical possibility” (even though you yourself later say “I do agree that we can begin with the notion that human emotions, including anger, are not intrinsically sinful”), we are even less likely to take seriously those persons who may, perhaps, be rightly angry with us (e.g. “that is just a smoke screen, an ‘attempt to justify sarcasm and punitive actions and angry insults’”)

    +Nathan Rinne

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Nathan,

      Thank you very much for writing, and for offering some excellent food for thought! As for your last point, I had not considered that a person might dismiss objections to his/her behavior entirely by rejecting the notion that another is “righteously” angry. We are, of course, capable of turning anything into an opportunity to excuse ourselves. That would be a particularly creative sort of ad hominem defense: “Oh, that’s just he–he’s angry and so I don’t have to listen to him.”

      As to the question of the psalmists’ (and others) anger, I’m not sure I would think of them as being made pure through the blood of the Lamb. I don’t think that Christ’s work makes sinful things about me acceptable or pure; rather, his work covers over what is sinful in my motives and pleads for mercy.

      I think that I would be more sympathetic to taking directly the anger exhibited in the psalms as acceptable or even exemplary were it not for a basic fact. That is, both testaments have direct teaching about anger in/among the people of God, and none of the explicit teaching casts a favorable light upon it. That’s why, I guess, I’m willing on the one hand to have a “back-up” category of righteous anger. On the other hand, I don’t think it should be a main category in which we think and move.

      Just a few thoughts–and thanks again for writing!

      In Christ,

      Jeff Gibbs

  • Michael Podeszwa says:

    Professor Gibbs,

    This is an essay. I suspect that there are many pastors, like me, who need to hear about this.-

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Mike,

      I’m glad if you found it helpful. And I am remembering you in prayers as you walk through difficult times!

      In Christ,

      Jeff

  • Don Stults says:

    What to do about anger?
    I loved the Biblical survey about anger but you left us with assertiveness psychology as what to do. I would also note that brain science says that the fight or flight part of our brain runs faster than or more reasonable part. So taking a step back to let your brain catch up is good advice too. (Be SLOW to anger)
    Yet I do think we can be more biblical here.
    1. Don’t deceive yourself your are a sinner. (1 John 1)
    Name it. Claim it. Repent. (My summery of your advice)
    2. Trust that the Lord’s vengeance is wholly adequate. (Rom 12)
    3. Explain everything in the kindest way. Others may have a different perception. Pray for your enemies, love them. Go and be reconciled (Matthew 5)
    4. As much as possible be at peace (1 Thes 5)
    5. Matthew 18
    That is my quick stab at it.
    God bless

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Don,

      Thanks for writing. In my concluding comments, I was trying to write in the sort of way that I might talk to someone, especially to someone who is struggling with anger. I agree with your #1, but it would not be a good way to speak to another. The process takes time, and people need help with it.

      As for your numbers 2-5, I can tell that (not surprisingly) we read the same Bible!

      As ever in Christ,

      Jeff

    • Don Stults says:

      On my way home for lunch I thought since the angry part of our brain is faster than the rational part telling the rational part to slow down the angry part is minimally helpful. Perhaps we could reprogram with drills like they do in the military or for musicians. Would anyone be willing to try the following drill. Once a day take in a quick angry (simulated) breath and clench your fist in front of you. Then release your hands to your side as you pray “Lord have mercy.” 2nd time “Christ have mercy!” 3rd time “Lord have mercy.”

  • Doug says:

    Professor, the first verse I often think about is Ephesians 4:26. This verse tells me that even if I held onto what appeared to be righteous anger, say my anger over the millions of children aborted each year world wide, God tells me through that verse I should hand it over to him. What else can I do with my anger then to cast all my cares upon the Lord; including the cares that provoke anger. I admit I am not always successful in my attempt to unload such burdens upon the Lord and anger is indeed a burden but, it is a burden we create for ourselves. In my prayer life I often find myself imagining what I would do if I were God. Knowing my frailty and sinful self as I do, I quickly realize that my activity as God would be sinful in its approach; it would be wrathful. Yet it is difficult to wait on God’s patient plan when we see injustice in the world that often appears to our sinful eyes as unchecked injustice. Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

    A long while ago I did a study on anger. My study was directed toward the observation of how anger controls us vs. how we control it. I listened to comments from men who were abusive to their family. They often believed anger was always in control of them and thus they would lash out as a result. Yet, in my study I noticed that such people were in control of their anger, at least in public places. When surrounded by onlookers the parent would refrain from smacking a child yet in the home such restraint is abandoned. I talked to a few battered woman who confirmed this observation. My conclusion was that anger does not always have the power over people that we think it does. What does have control over anger is the surrounding stage. Recognizing this pattern is a good start toward repentance because it removes our, “devil made me do it” mentality and puts the blame square upon our shoulders. Such anger can never be described as “righteous”.

    One final thought. When my anger over the callousness of abortion rises up I find myself hating what God hates. It is easy therefore to conclude that such anger is indeed righteous. I hate sin because God hates sin. I am not a fan o this world because I know God created something greater and my sin mucked it up. Where my anger really gets hold of me is when I see a two year old child lose his life because this sinful world is not particular on who it stains. I find it very difficult at first to hand over such anger before the sun goes down, at least until I remember that God’s plan is greater than, Holier than and more Righteous than anything I can dream up. Still, like any sin it is far to easy to take back from God what we just handed over, especially when the sin or affect of sin remains before us. This is all the more reason to remain in God’s Word and to be consistent in our prayers. Even the saints can cry out, “How long O Lord?”, but they can do it without anger.

    Doug

    • Doug says:

      P.S. My apologies for the dyslexic nightmare of misspellings and omitted words, I accidentally published my thoughts before I had a chance to edit. 🙂

      D

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Doug,

      Thanks, brother, for personal and profound thoughts. As I said in the article, one of the reasons I was motivated to write it was because I, too, am afflicted with anger far too often.

      One way I think about reacting to the evil in the world is to question why “anger” has to be the reaction? Obviously, we don’t want to be indifferent. But when I think about abortion as an issue (since you mentioned that particular one), I’ve been asking God to help me to feel sorrow and concern, and then (if this is a feeling) love for the unborn and for everyone involved.

      I wonder if my own sense of security in Christ is key here. I’m talking about my perception of it, not the reality–Christ’s promises are secure and certain regardless of how I feel about them. But if I am filled with the sense of the safety and identity and welcome that I have with God because of Jesus–then evil doesn’t have to be a threat to me. I don’t have to react with anger–at least, theoretically.

      Again, thanks for your comments. The peace of Christ be with us all!

      Jeff

  • Dr. Gibbs, this was truly a spectacularly well done article. A friend of mine likes to quote to me as often as I need to hear that passage from James: “The anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God.” He is such a party-pooper.

    I’d like to talk to the person who has ever been able to figure out how to obey this text from God: “In your anger, sin not.”

    GREAT article…

    Thanks!

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Paul,

      Thank you, friend, for your encouraging word. Winger’s Ephesians commentary has quite a nice discussion of that text (assuming you’re referring to Ephesians 4:26). I might just add, by the way, that Winger’s work is a CPH product 🙂 .

      As ever in Christ,

      Jeff

  • Jeff Gibbs says:

    Don,

    Your comment reminds me of the value of “habit.” Nothing can cure us of sin, of course, except the Last Day and its glory. But pious habits can be great resources, at least in some ways. Joel Biermann’s book “A Case for Character,” expounds on this.

    As ever,

    Jeff

  • Theodore Hopkins says:

    Dr. Gibbs,

    Thanks for this helpful essay. I appreciated the scriptural study of anger. Your conclusion is spot-on, I believe, that anger is common and dangerous part of our lives, which must be our first reaction and response to anger instead of appeals for righteous anger.

    Undoubtedly, this would get resistance from many also, but I would like to extend your thesis to another important ethical topic. Should we not say the same thing about violence? There may be appropriate uses of force, but the first Christian reaction toward violence ought to be the recognition of the danger and sinfulness of violence, not immediately showing how violence can be justified. I’ve heard far too many Christians interested in the boundary questions of violence (and anger) instead of looking toward the center: Vengeance is mine says the Lord. We are called to peace and love and not violence and anger. The pattern of humiliation in Christ strongly pushes this direction too.

    In short, thank you for pointing us toward the center of the Biblical understanding of anger and away from the periphery, in which we sinners are more interested in justifying ourselves than hearing God’s word of justification and following his will.

    Pax Christi,

    Ted

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Ted,

      Thank you for helping me realize what I was trying to do. You’re right–I want us to focus on the center, rather than the periphery. I acknowledge that there are peripheral concerns, and special circumstances, etc., etc. But the vast majority of the anger in our lives and in our world is directly addressed, I would think, but the direct teaching of Scripture on it.

      I tend to agree with you about violence, although the definition of terms (‘force’ vs. ‘violence’) is a big uncertain to me. I do believe our culture glorifies violence in many ways. Jesus’ way, however, is the way of vulnerability, of being taken advantage of, of refusing to try to accomplish GOd’s ends by the means of force or violence.

      Peace be with you!

      Jeff

  • Walter R Steele says:

    Jeff,
    I recall learning at one point that in mediaeval times, soldiers returning from war spent time outside the city walls, confessing their sin. As a combat veteran, I understand this. One might have gone to fight a “just war”; however, as soon as you put your hand in what once was your buddy’s chest, anger, hate, and other sinful emotions take hold. The fighting of a “just war” was considered “righteous,” but the anger and hate was not. I have known veterans so consumed by hate and anger that their lives are spoiled.
    Your observation of our culture, I believe, is spot on. And it is not only in the public square. It infects the church–including our synod. Kyrie eleison!
    –Walter

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Walter,

      Your comments are tremendously moving. On the one hand, as a confessional Lutheran I joyful acknowledge that Christians can serve in god-pleasing vocation by being a soldier, police officer, etc. On the other hand, it seems to me that these vocations bring with them great danger and threat to one’s faith. Your words articulate that briefly, but powerfully. We should be talking with our young people in BOTH ways–godly vocation, but also potentially grave danger.

      As ever in Christ,

      Jeff

  • Thomas Haas says:

    Thank you, Doctor Gibbs. May the Lord continue to bless you and yours. In Christ, tom

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Tom,

      Thanks for the encouragement. Hope you are well! My mom continues the slow decline of Alzheimer’s. Recently she has received some cards from old friends at Grace, and that perks her up, even if only for a short time.

      Peace,

      Jeff

  • Carl Gnewuch says:

    Thank you, Professor Gibbs, for your in depth treatment of this highly relevant subject. I arrived at the place of your conclusion some years ago, without the depth of knowledge displayed in your article, of course. I must have picked up the thought from someplace, probably Scripture 🙂 Even without the benefit of knowing all of what the Lord teaches on this, the witness is clear – Divine anger belongs to God and we ain’t God. When we indulge in anger we rob the Lord of his prerogative – vengeance is mine, says the Lord.

    I have also received the same response you have from some who feel they have a right to be angry. I found it best not to push it with them – they just get angry – but now I’ve got something I can leave with them – an article from a seminary prof, which has a bit more clout. But then again, if they won’t listen to the prophets…

    Carl

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Carl,

      Thank you, friend, for your encouragement. Yes, it is an odd thing. The one time in my theological life (that I can recall) when I was accused of being a “liberal” in public was when I was trying to suggest that life-affirming people should love their enemies, because Jesus said so–rather than hating them and being enraged at them. That was interesting.

      In peace,

      Jeff

  • Rev Charles Sakpani says:

    Thank you Professor Gibbs for this brilliant thoughts on “The Myth of “Righteous Anger”: What the Bible Says About Human Anger”

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Brother Charles,

      Thank you for the encouragement! I hope that you are well–it is a delight to hear from you!

      Jeff Gibbs

  • Nathan Rinne says:

    Dr. Gibbs,

    Thanks for your response to my post. I want to clarify something though.

    You said:

    “As to the question of the psalmists’ (and others) anger, I’m not sure I would think of them as being made pure through the blood of the Lamb. I don’t think that Christ’s work makes sinful things about me acceptable or pure; rather, his work covers over what is sinful in my motives and pleads for mercy.”

    I talked about the Psalmist’s anger being made pure through the blood of the lamb assuming that their anger was righteous (perhaps discussing specific texts – and talking about how anger evident in them could be or should be seen as righteous, is necessary here) – not that it was sinful. I do not think that God sees our sins as good works through the blood of Christ but rather washes them away.

    In wanting to defend righteous anger in general and in the Psalms in particular I don’t want to be misunderstood here either. I am not saying, for example, that we should constantly be in a state of anger – but rather that injustice should make us angry, and that anger should drive us to prayer – both for justice and mercy for our enemies.

    For example, ISIS in general – not even any individual, but what they are and stand for – makes me angry. I want the wrongs to be righted, even as I want them to find mercy in Christ.

    While my motives in my anger are surely not pure here – they need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb – I do think one should be angry. In like fashion, in general, why should our default not be to assume that somehow the anger evident in some of the Psalms is anger in line with God’s cause?

    I hope this helps to better explain my thoughts here. Again, I say this as someone like yourself, you would like to be angry less, and usually does not sense much righteousness at all in his anger.

    Pax,
    +Nathan

    +Nathan

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Nathan,

      Thank you for clarifying on the “making pure”–I confess that I misunderstood your words, and I apologize for that. I see now what you mean. And I certainly did not hear (or read) you as promoting anger or something like that.

      As to whether the anger in the psalms is in line with God’s cause, I do think it is possible, and I don’t want to dismiss that entirely. As I suggested before, I am just stopped in my tracks by the direct teaching, in both testaments, about anger. For me, that teaching makes me not trust anger, and to do what I can to work through it, rid myself of it, confess my sins, etc.–all of which you also affirmed.

      Peace be with you!

      Jeff Gibbs

  • Jonathan Buescher says:

    Dr. Gibbs,

    Thank you for this paper, and once again for presenting this topic at the CID Pastors’ Conference a few weeks ago. It is very helpful.

    Since this topic was on my mind, and came across the topic in this video, I thought I would share it as an example of anger as a virtue in our culture. The video does have quite a bit of language, but notice the “Call to action” at the end, just before the 18 minute mark
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYusNNldesc

    I also thought the response from the people of my former state of residence was interesting.
    http://www.wdaz.com/news/3860609-be-nice-fargo-firm-starts-billboard-battle-hbos-john-oliver

    Again, thanks for sharing.

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Jon,

      It was good to see you at the conference. Yes–these jokes only make sense in a certain context, one in which anger really is often (not always) viewed as a positive.

      This is a reference to Minnesota (another cold, northern-type state), but I heard Garrison Keillor say that Minnesotans never want to disagree with anyone directly. So, if you hear something really off the wall, the response is a quiet, “Oh, that’s different.”

      All the best,

      Jeff

  • Dr. Gibbs.
    Thanks for your well worded and timely warnings against anger based on the Word of God. Indeed our anger can and does often lead to sin. I for one certainly need the admonition about the dangers of anger which I have no doubt succumbed to on far too many occasions. Thanks be to God, that we have a Savior who takes away our sins!

    I am concerned however that you seem to have overlooked the fact that we are in fact called to love our neighbors within vocations that require us to reflect or carryout God’s righteous anger. God’s Word even tells us to “hate evil and love good” (Amos 5:15)
    The statement in your article, “nowhere, however, are we commanded to act in righteous anger…” appears to be in conflict with portions of God’s Word where it is evident that some fallible sinful human beings are in fact expected to convey or execute in their God given vocations God’s righteous anger. For a specific example, consider the way that God’s anger or wrath (ὀργὴ) is expected to be carried out by government servants in Romans 13. As a former law enforcement officer, I was specifically called within my vocation to love my neighbors in the community in which I was serving by acting as God’s agent of ὀργὴ on the wrongdoer. What does it look like when a God fearing man or woman acts as God’s servant of anger or wrath? Is it inherently sinful for an officer to feel anger over a woman being beaten up and choked in her living room by her husband and then the officer has to act on that anger (along with his responsibility to act) by wrestling the man to the ground and putting him in hand cuffs? Anger supplies the needed adrenaline in such situations to accomplish the God pleasing task at hand. A similar related question: Is it sinful for our pastors to feel anger over blasphemous heresy and then speak up against the heresy just as Jesus or John the Baptist did? Aren’t our pastors supposed to be God’s mouthpieces as they express God’s displeasure and God’s anger over sin? What does the expression of God’s anger sound like? Is it a sin for our pastors to feel angry over the same things that God is angry with and then express that anger? People naturally pay more attention to impassioned speech than dry and monotone discourse. The emotion of anger provides the passion that evokes listeners to pay attention. When the law is preached in all its fullness, it sometimes happens in the softest and gentlest tone, and other times it could sound more like Jesus or John the Baptist. Anger is a dangerous sword as you rightly point out. We must not let the sun go down on our anger and continue to dwell on it. Our righteousness comes for Christ, so I appreciate your clarification that there is “not really” a righteous human anger. We would be amiss though, if we didn’t also acknowledge that Scripture does in fact give positive examples of servants of God who are acting on God’s righteous anger in the scope of their vocations.
    I greatly appreciate your warning that anger is a dangerous sword to wield… your warning needs to be heard, and for that, I thank you. Your clarification of the Bible’s warnings and admonitions against anger are much appreciated. I hope that the young men attending the classes at the seminary will also receive warnings against the dangerous and perilous sin of toleration and indifference towards sin and bad doctrine which seems to be the antithesis of righteous anger, and seems to be just as prevalent in our sinful culture if not more so than the claim to righteous human anger.

    Thanks again for a very insightful article!
    Your fellow servant in Christ,
    Mike Schleider

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Mike,

      Thank you, brother, for a very thoughtful post. I will quickly agree that I did not address Romans 13, and you are quite correct. I don’t see any other way to read it than to conclude that the rightful authorities are tasked by God to express his wrath in punishing evil-doers. I knew that passage was there, and I just forgot to discuss it.

      I will ask this question, however. What does that look like? On the one hand, I see your point that anger provides energy to rise to the occasion, etc. But it seems to me that, just as when a parent acts in anger against a child’s disobedience, it increases the chances exponentially that the parent will make a mistake (I’ve been there, done that), so also with (to use your example) law enforcement. Is it not the case that precisely when a police officer is overcome with anger against wrong-doing, at that moment he is most in danger of sinning and over-stepping the boundaries of his vocation? It seems to me that just as parenting should be carried out from a calm and wise position of vocation, so with those who bear the sword. Again, I freely acknowledge the theoretical possibility of an anger that gives no cause for repentance. It seems to me, however, that it is precisely those who are called to enact God’s wrath who are in a grave danger of confusing their anger and reactions with God’s will. I mean no criticism of you or any law-enforcement officer by this. It just seems to me that the best way for authorities to enact God’s wrath is to do so clear-headedly, and calmly, and forcefully–not in the midst of their own anger, personally.

      And so with pastors. On the one hand, I agree that impassioned speech gets people’s attention. But the opposite of “impassioned” speech (I take that to refer to angry speech) is not “a dry and dull monotone.” Could it not be a sincere, earnest, loving and compassion speech? On the purely human level, anger chases people away; it does not beckon to them. In my own experience, I have been called to repentance by the preaching of God’s law in a quiet, earnest tone more effectively than when someone is yelling me. (That could, of course, just be a function of my own personality.)

      At any rate, thanks for your comments. You invited me to think about Romans 13 especially in a way I had not before.

      In Christ,

      Jeff Gibbs

  • Jared Melius says:

    Really excellent work here.

    It’s interesting isn’t it that of the two possibilities in the NT for justifying righteous anger, the one, James 1, says it should come on slowly, and the 2nd, Ephesians 4, says it should be snuffed out quickly? It’s sort of like telling the race car driver to accelerate very slowly and as soon as the car starts moving, hit the brakes.

    Jared

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Jared,

      You have expressed something in a clever, clever way–and I mean that in the most profound sense of “clever.” Thanks for this way of putting it–I plan to use your expression as soon as possible.

      In Christ,

      Jeff Gibbs

  • Thomas Krueger says:

    Dr. Gibbs,

    Thanks for the Greek word study info. Well thought-out and written.
    My only caution would be not to be too judgmental of pro-lifers.
    The people I stand with at the abortion mill are unfailingly
    kind to those coming to enter the clinic. “Love your baby”, “your baby is a gift of God” is repeatedly used. We strive to speak lovingly, yet truthfully to/with the clinic escorts. Anger gains nothing.

    Thanks for sharing,

    Tom

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Tom,

      Thank you for writing. I certainly did not mean to be “judgmental” of life-affirming people, or of anyone. And I do think that the newer generation (and some of us oldsters) is “getting it” in terms of reaching out in love and compassion. I do think, however, that since our culture is glorifying outrage and teaching us to embrace it, this is a danger spot for life-affirming people.

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. Anger gains nothing.

      In Christ,

      Jeff Gibbs

  • Nathan Rinne says:

    Dr. Gibbs,

    Thank you. I think we can agree that it is wise not to “trust anger” – at least in regards to one’s own persons in particular!

    Thanks again for the attention you brought to this important issue.

    +Nathan

  • Elliott Robertson says:

    Dear Dr. Gibbs

    When shepherd boy David talked about his duties to King Saul, he spoke about killing the lion and the bear as shepherd. This was, of course, part of David’s job-description: protective care of his sheep.

    As a little Pastor under the Great, Good Shepherd, there are times that lions and bears come after my people. It’s in the form of tempters, or of evildoers who have brought physical and spiritual hurt, or of those who tell lies about God (many non-Christian skeptics, as well as Christians who tell lies about what God says, i.e., don’t baptize a baby, Communion isn’t really Jesus, the Word requires your decision, the blood of Jesus needs added works of charity, etc.).
    Much like a David, I am rightfully angry on behalf of those in my care, that they may not be harmed, or become lunch for that crowd.

    At that point of rightful, consequential anger, I have to face some questions:
    Who, or what is the object of my anger? [or is it possibly an intransitive anger awakened within me (which probably means I have some past issues to deal with)]?

    Please let me be clear. After reading your words, I still see anger as a good work, fraught with danger. (e.g., A parent should be angry when someone harms his child. How he acts on that anger is more the issue.) So, knowing that my anger is prone to be rife with sin, but that sin is, Biblically, not necessary to anger any more than it is to the other good works, I have to ask myself some clarifying questions, such as, “To whom is my anger directed?” and “What weapons do I use, since the battle is the Lord’s?”
    My understanding, using the shepherding analogy, is that I SHOULD be angry at Satan, at lies about God (false doctrine), at those dealing drugs to my youth. I should be angry at cancer, and alzheimers, and infant death, and all of the other realities which show the thoroughgoingness of sin, death, and the devil since the fall.
    I am not bearing the Romans 13 sword (I’m in another kingdom and stewardship); I “only” have the Means of Grace with which to fight any of these, keeping the battle to be the Lord’s when faithfully administered and proclaimed.
    Therefore I seek conversion of the unbeliever, and the correction of the believer, and the examination of myself for the same.
    I further find myself having talks with sometimes civilly dangerous people about keeping hands off of one of our members, telling of the wrath of God they will face, and the life-changing Gospel which is their hope, too. And I am always gentle, not with veins sticking out, because there is a way to be Christian and angry.

    But I think of the analogy of little David to the Pastoral Ministry, with his adrenaline-rushed anger on behalf of his Father’s sheep, which becomes the death of the attacker.

    I am absolutely angry on behalf of my members, “these little ones,” as Jesus calls them, and when I seek to carry out this proper anger, I find the Christ has given me only “weapons of the Spirit,” the Means of Grace, by which to do battle.

    So I am limited, but not prohibited. And the fear and love of God keeps me from looking to substitute sinful anger and earthly means when by faith I know that His means are far more powerful and truly in line with my call and His purposes. Cannot that tempting person, hurting person, etc. who comes after my flock become dead to sin, and my anger be the good emotion which propels me to the scene to seek such a death?
    [And, if sin taints my anger –this is no excuse– how is that different from any other good work I may do as Pastor, or simply as one of the Baptized? Am I not always at the foot of the Cross for such things?]

    The short, summary version of this reply is, “How would you understand Pastoral shepherding and protective anger in the light of little David and the general definition of shepherding?” Or does the Bible teach that anger is, in itself, sin?

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Elliott,

      Thank you for writing, and for eloquently offering lots of truth! I speak fairly often with the students here about defending the flock. That’s why pastors need to know about theologically distasteful and evil things–so we can respond in the best way on behalf of God’s people and even to reach out to our enemies.

      I also appreciate very much the honest humility that you express with regard to your own tendencies and temptations–every direction we look, we see our own limitations and sins. This is why our sufficiency is utterly and completely from Christ. I think that we have a lot in common–you seem at least as distrustful of your own anger and motives as I am. And I also appreciate that in the church, we have the instruments that God has appointed and no other–his Means.

      You ask how I understand pastoral shepherding and protecting the flock in light of the David story (1 Samuel 17). Two thoughts. First, I would be loath to lean too much on that narrative for specifics of pastoral work and ministry. David is, of course, a type of Israel’s GREATER champion, Jesus–so I would tend to read it Christologically, I think. Also, the text itself lays no emphasis that I can see on David being angry, although perhaps it is likely that he was. But finally, I keep coming back to the fact that when we do have explicit teaching about anger, it is consistently, almost invariably regarded as something either dangerous or outright sinful.

      So, you ask whether the Bible teaches that anger in itself is sin. The answer is that most of the texts make no distinction whatsoever between anger and sin; that’s just what they actually say. A very few of them do allow for such a distinction, which is why I hold back from thinking that our human anger is ALWAYS and AUTOMATICALLY sinful; that would be saying too much. But there is, I hold, a dominant approach to anger in the lives of Jesus’ disciples, and that is to warn against its dangers and (as far as I can see) never to commend it explicitly. I might add that as far as I can recall (and here I am only depending on my memory), I don’t think that any NT texts that speak of Christ as shepherd or as pastors as under-shepherds speak of anger as a positive aspect of things. The one reference that does come to mind is Titus 1:7, where an overseer, as God’s steward, is not to be ὀργιλός, which BDAG glosses as “inclined to anger, “quick-tempered.”

      Again, many thanks for writing.

      In Christ,

      Jeff Gibbs

  • Jeff Gibbs says:

    Elliott,

    I realized that I didn’t finish a sentence the way I wanted to: “I think that we have a lot in common–you seem at least as distrustful of your own anger and motives as I am OF MY OWN MOTIVES.” I realized that my words could have sounded like I was distrustful of YOUR motives! Not my point at all! 🙂

    JAG

  • Josh Jones says:

    Dear Dr. Gibbs,

    Thank you for taking time to explore an issue that all people experience. I also wanted to offer a small insight which has come to light in my own ministry and family.

    In many cases, anger is one of the primary symptoms of depression. I am sure there are others who could speak with much more authority on this, however, in my experience the devil is never far away from depression either. While reading your article, I began to connect the dots, so to speak between anger, sin, the evil one, and depression. I don’t know that the issue needs to be pressed, but it is perhaps a helpful connection as depression is so pervasive in this cursed and sinful world.

    Looking forward to the parousia!

    In Christ,

    Josh

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear Josh,

      Yes, I agree with the way you draw those connections. I sometimes said to my own parishioners that anger was “postponed pain.” Satan can use it so quickly, and all the more effectively if I have been weakened by depression.

      All the more important, then, that we do something positive with our anger in way that bless our neighbor, and are good for our own spiritual lives.

      With you, living in the Hope,

      Jeff

  • David Speers says:

    Dr Gibbs,

    I am *sad* that I missed your presentation to the CID this past October, but my family and I were in Florida, on the beach for a couple of weeks! I appreciate the opportunity to read the paper and reflect on it. I scanned some of the responses and noted that someone asked you to define anger and you, somewhat, demurred.

    I believe that there might be something in the paper, perhaps an underlying assumption related to the idea of “knowing it when I see it” that you mention above and a sticking point I have with the direction you take. What is it? That you seem to want to say, correct me if I am wrong, that it is something we use, wield, etc, and that strikes me more as a description one might use of a robot, or something unhuman. Like emotions are something like a technique we use to accomplish something. A theraputic technique. And of course the question is, what does it accomplish, if anything? E.g. not the righteousness of God.

    However, to put, perhaps, a finer point on it, if anger, sadness, joy, et al, are responses to the circumstances we face and especially the people we interact with, then anger is something that I evaluate in light of God’s word and the people/circumstances involved. To keep this simple, first of all, have you ever tried to wield an emotion? That sounds too abstract to me. We speak of them like, I AM angry, I AM sad, etc. (on the other hand, have you ever tried to BE happy, angry, sad, when you weren’t? like when someone tells you to cheer up…or you can GO to your room). The question, I think, that fits the subject here, is first what and then why I am feeling this way? Many times, I do not know. And in fact, if I do not work through the emotion, trying to figure out what in the world just *happened* to me, eg do I feel this way when something *similiar* happens, what is it that evoking that emotion? Thumos, anger, boiling etc, happens when someone does this! Hmmmm, why? I believe this might be a better explanation to the verse “be angry, but do not sin”. Be human! It is messy, and boils and weeps (getting everyone all slobbery), and it can be very unpleasant to live with and certain to endure from another. Mothers help their children to begin to figure out, what it is that upsets them. Sometimes it is understandable, other times a mystery, and other times just plain wrong. With respect to the latter I find out that my anger is prompted by a deep wound to my honor, (cf Achilleus…”sing of the rage of Achilleus), and yet Achilleus was not clear about honor, properly speaking, a tragic figure). Other times i have been wronged and truly wounded, and this realization, enables me to deal with those who have done the harm. (eg, I have a friend who has a habit of trying to humiliate me, and push my buttons, which causes me to get angry. The point is not that anger is wrong, but rather as I live through it, it forces me to consider, in the midst of it and after (if I take the warnings of Scripture seriously, cf Proverbs above), that my friend and I need to have to a talk, set some boundaries, BEFORE I KILL HIM!). I believe that anger has a constructive purpose, but not to be wielded, but to suffer and endure it, learning how to negotiate life among sinners.

    Emotions are not something to vent, as a tool against people, or to suppress as if they were gas, after all, Paul says in EPh 4:19 that the pagan is one who is “past feeling” and in fact, seems to have lost part of what is truly human. Rather, they can a sign that something in us is awry, disordered, struggling with the dissonance created by life in a fallen world, between the ought and the is. They help humans to learn how to live with others.

    A practical example from pastoral care. Say an adult child of an alcoholic comes to visit, apparently struggling with his responses to family when they lie, even little white lies. When they are discovered, he gets unreasonably angry. Scary. Family is afraid. If the man takes some time to reflect on this, he may discover this is a common response to lies for adult children of alcoholics. He comes to understand himself, his circumstances/context, in relation to others. That is, he comes to recognize that his alcoholic parents lied to him, promising him things over and over again, denying their drinking etc, creating an unreal/a lie of a life. He wants nothing to do with this, for he does not want to enter into that life again, and if this is nipped in the bud, if it is allowed to live in his family, he is afraid he will be back in that same life. So anger is a way to try to protect self. It is a reaction, not a technique. When he discovers and is assured that this is not the same circumstance, a lie might no longer elicit such a response from him. He also learns to consider and go beyond, perhaps, the excuse, “well, that is just the way I am”, even while his family now learns that there are certain scars/scabs he bears, which a loving neighbor will not intentionally seek to disturb. Again, the warnings from Proverbs seem to speak to this.

    Thanks again for the paper, sorry to have missed you here in CID.

    • Jeff Gibbs says:

      Dear David,

      Thanks for this very thoughtful and insightful post, from the heart of a pastor. (By the way–I’m glad you were on vacation! Pastors need vacations!!).

      I like your descriptions of how emotions work in us, and I readily acknowledge that they are spontaneous parts of who we are. I do also, however, think that it is helpful to ask the question, “What do I do with this or that emotion?” In a kind of rough and ready way, I often think of myself as having both emotions and also the power of will. My emotions (aka, “I”) react spontaneously both to good and evil. And the reactions are sometimes helpful to me as a Christian, and sometimes they are very, very dangerous. For instance, when I see another prospering and I feel envious, that’s obviously not something I want to go anywhere with. My job is to fight the envy, to exert my regenerate will (also “I”), resist it, “do something” with it.

      As far as I can tell, the straightforward reality is that when the NT writers, including Jesus himself, speak about “anger,” they have a very negative view of it. If I understand your words rightly about Eph 4:26, I think that you might be over-reading it, perhaps a bit.

      At any rate, thank you for your post, and I pray a blessed Advent season–and not too much activity. It’s a busy time of year for a parish pastor!!

      In Christ,

      Jeff

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