I regard myself as a fairly calm person. I’m not easily stirred to anger. Yet when I recently had cause to consider Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount I realised that perhaps I wasn’t as in control of this emotion as I thought.
Just to remind you, in Matthew 5:21-22 Jesus says:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
As I considered this verse, I was aware that I didn’t really take Jesus’ instruction seriously. After all, there are people out there who just push my buttons. They’re thoughtless and selfish. Surely it’s not unreasonable to get a little miffed, if not angry, at their conduct?
We also seem to be experiencing a growing “outrage culture” where even small indiscretions are met with significant anger. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words and I ask myself, do we have the right to get angry? If so, what do we have the right to be angry about? Furthermore, what are the consequences if we are?
Response and reaction
Before I begin to answer these questions, there’s a prior question: what exactly is anger? One suggestion is that it’s an emotion that emerges as a response to our understanding or experience of an event. The classic example; if somebody cuts me off in traffic, I might explode – but only in the confines of a car when I’m on my own (of course)!
Our anger can also emerge from a place of pain or fear. We have been genuinely hurt by someone, especially someone for whom we have regard, affection or love – or we can fear losing control over a situation or person – so anger and coercion work together to help us regain control.
The point is, the emotion of anger emerges as a response to my understanding or experience of an event. If I’ve been wronged or aggrieved then I become angry, expressed in a range of ways: irritability, argumentativeness, bitterness, passivity, shouting or, in the extreme, violence.
In his book Good and Angry, David Powlison says that, at its core, anger expresses “I am against that”. He goes on to say, “Anger expresses the energy of your reaction to something you find offensive and wish to eliminate… [It is] active displeasure toward something that’s important enough to care about”.
Anger is always about displeasure. It’s the way we react when something we think is important is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Furthermore, in the book Untangling Emotions, Alasdair Groves and Winston Smith identify anger as a “moral emotion” that passes judgement. They argue that, at its best, anger is right to say that something is wrong and, at its worst, it is “unadulterated self-interest and issues an ultimatum” to the other person. In other words, it’s my way or the highway. They add: “Anger offers the intoxicating experience of playing God”. Vengeance is mine, not God’s. This is ugly anger and is quite arrogant.
In light of this understanding it strikes me that, just as often, our anger bubbles up from a place of perceived pain – that is, from some inconvenience or sense of entitlement. My desires, needs and hopes are compromised by someone else and as a result, I’m very angry.
So, our anger aligns with the values we hold. It reveals something of what I think is important about how life should or shouldn’t be. This might be anger at the injustice of child slavery or violence towards women, and these can be expressed in good and constructive ways – writing petitions, attending peaceful rallies or contacting a member of parliament. Or it might be anger at getting cut off in traffic, at someone turning up late or forgetting to buy the milk. In these situations, our anger is more of an expression of our belief that we should not be inconvenienced or interrupted – which certainly aligns with what matters to us, because what matters to us is often… us.
Yet what if that person did forget to buy the milk when they said they would? This leads me to return to my initial question: do we have the right to get angry? If so, when?
The place of anger in the Christian life
As Christians, our final destination, the home of righteousness, will be free of wrath, rage and anger – the people of God gathered around the throne of God, governed by peace. This is where the Bible is pointing us. Yet we know that between the Fall in Genesis 3 and the return of Jesus, sin impacts all aspects of our lives together.
As we live in this time of waiting, we continue to wrestle with sin and with the help of the Holy Spirit put to death behaviours not fit for the person who seeks to live faithfully in God’s kingdom (see Colossians 3:8) While Paul seems to acknowledge in Ephesians 4 that there’s a time for justified anger, he then adds, “In your anger do not sin” (see Ps.4:4) and “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Eph 4:26). Here it seems is the instruction to not allow anger to linger; a line must be drawn to ensure prompt restoration of relationships.
We need to heed James’ urging to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (Jas 1:19). Why? Because “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (Jas 1:20). God’s anger is a response to sin and injustice, but often ours is not. All in all, the instruction of Jesus and the testimony of the rest of the New Testament is that there is no place for anger that emanates from a heart that is entitled and self-seeking.
Often people will explain or justify their anger by claiming it is righteous. But what is righteous anger? Tim Challies defines it as something that “reacts against actual sin, not a violation of my desires or preferences”. It’s an anger that focuses on God and his kingdom, and transgressions against God’s holiness. It’s a concern for God’s name: when that is violated, then God and his people are angry.
Righteous anger recognises sin that harms God’s people, brings dishonour to him and the cause of the gospel. Therefore, caution is required if we’re going to claim our anger is righteous, lest we’re really trying to justify our lack of self-control.
The New Testament urges us to put away anger and wrath, and instead imitate God by walking in love. So, we should be slow to anger the way he is, avoid sin and interrogate the source of our anger to see whether it stems from self-interest.
The thing that Jesus is most concerned about is how I’m dealing with anger internally, as a matter of the heart. Am I more concerned about my own entitlement or exercising self-control and forbearance towards my brothers and sisters?
Anger is complex and difficult to untangle and reign in.
It reveals our hearts and that sense of entitlement we all have that insists life goes our way – though it can also reveal our love for the vulnerable, the weak, the mistreated. It can indeed give expression to God’s heart.
So, keeping Jesus’, Paul and James’ words in mind, let’s seek the way of kingdom living and be slow to anger, recognising this does not produce the righteous life God requires of his people.
The Ven Kara Hartley is the Archdeacon for Women’s Ministry in the Sydney Diocese. This is a summary of a presentation given at the Centre for Christian Living at Moore College in 2022.