Anger—everyone has struggled with it, or has experienced someone who does. Anger is prevalent in its various forms. On a continuum we can soft-sell it as frustration or watch it in the fit of rage. Our anger can make feel at once powerful, and then full of shame. Receiving another's anger can leave us feeling small, unjustly treated, and hurt or shamed. Anger has the capacity to do great damage, but also to do great good. How then should we think about it? What does the Bible say about anger? And what does my anger say about me? And what should I do about it?
The scriptures tell us that anger is anything but neutral, against much of what current thinking depicts about it. Anger, like nothing else, reveals what one truly lives for, values, and treasures. Our anger should get our attention, signaling the need for serious heart examination. Anger is a moral issue, always demonstrating adherence to God’s standards of the heart and conduct. But what else does the Bible tells us about our anger? And what does it reveal about me?
The Bible does not condemn anger per se, but does have much to say about it. In fact, God is oftentimes depicted as being angry and, in fact, wrathful. His wrath is His holy reaction to sin. Though similar to our own righteous anger, God’s wrath is His pure, undefiled reaction to anything that is outside of His glorious intention. On the other hand, we see our own anger resembling that of the evil one more commonly than to that of God’s holy displeasure. God’s anger is always against sin and toward the elimination of whatever stands against His holy intentions.
Our anger, on the other hand, rather than being aroused by the sin, cruelty, or injustice of others, is oftentimes resulting from how other people’s behavior stands in the way of what we believe will best serve our own interests. It is not the fact that others' behaviors are dishonoring to the Lord and are in cross-purposes with His intentions, but that they mess with our own self-sovereignty. Therefore, in order to better understand the Bible’s perspective on anger, we must understand where our hearts go astray in moments of fully-felt justification for reactions to circumstances that rouse our anger. This is what James has in mind when saying,
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. (James 1:19-20)
Someone will say, “But doesn’t the Bible tell us that we should be angry, but just not sin in it.” Ephesians 4:26 does indeed seem to imply that anger is a neutral emotion that only goes sour when it gets expressed as sin. However, we must be careful to understand that anger is more than an emotion. Anger accompanies beliefs and desires. The presence of sin, injustice, cruelty, and such should arouse displeasure of strong proportions. But in order for anger to be righteous, it must find its proper place in regard to God’s glorious intentions.
The Bible is clear as to the cause or motivation of ungodly anger. We need look no farther than Satan, the author of lies and murder (Rev. 12:12; John 8:44), to understand the core motivation for ungodly anger. His anger was rooted in pride (desire to be God and that things go his way). All ungodly anger follows the same course. It is felt and expressed as hostility toward that which stands in one’s way. Though the initiating and provoking circumstance may have been plausible reason for anger, the subsequent desire for the destruction rather than the redemption of the source of provocation goes ungodly very quickly. Grace, humility, submission, patience, gentleness (the fruit of the Spirit) are never in the picture when ungodly anger is being experienced or expressed.
A frequent theme of the book of Proverbs is anger. In fact, when addressing the issue of anger, the Proverbs seem to differentiate the wise and the fool by how they handle anger (for example, Proverbs 14:29). The fool is one who fails to consider the condition of his heart and consequently evaluates situations from a self-oriented point of view. It is no surprise that he is perpetually angry.
As said before, ungodly anger is the emotion and subsequent actions that follow the experience of not getting our way. Godly anger is experienced when what God wants is of the utmost importance to us. When His will and ways are our focus, our anger will be bridled for His purposes—in timing, expression, and goal. And why is that? Because the value of God’s glory and love for other people will have become central themes in our lives.
Ungodly anger results when we are disinterested in God’s glory and our focus is on ourselves. It is self-willed and stubborn, seeking to gain advantage for the sake of self. For example, if a man craves peace and quiet after a day’s work, then he will snap at his children when they quarrel and disturb his time with the remote control and diet Coke. Or if he craves the approval of others, believing that his standing with them is paramount to his success in life, then he will brood when he senses he has been shunned or criticized.
The fruit of this sort of anger is always punitive, divisive, and cruel. Oftentimes it is intended to control in order to get one's way. It is self-centered, rooted in pride, and devoid of concern for others. The results: embittered children, lost jobs, frightened employees, ruined friendships, health problems, broken relationships, and more. Ungodly anger perpetuates itself. Its expression only reinforces the underlying beliefs and desires that fuel it.
Blame shifting, brooding, carping criticism, pouting, sarcasm, judgmentalism, cutting words, cursing, grumbling, negativism, manipulation, whining, complaining—all these are forms of expression of anger—all of which the Bible condemns.
With all this said, the Bible is clear that ungodly anger does not accomplish God’s righteous purposes (James 1:20), but instead is actually against Him. Jesus equates anger in our hearts as murder, because its intention is the destruction of the person that stands in our way (Matthew 5:21, 22). We are warned to avoid the persons from whom we might be shaped by and learn such anger (Proverbs 22:24). Though it can be learned, ungodly anger arises out of our hearts already saturated in rebellion and self-seeking (Mark 7:20-23).
What is a person to do with his anger? Here are a few key suggestions:
- Ask heart-searching questions. What are my ruling desires and beliefs? Where is there entitlement? a lack of gratitude? Where have legitimate desires morphed into inordinate, ruling desires? Where is there unforgiveness and bitterness? Where have you set yourself up as judge? Jury? Executioner? Notice the more subtle forms of anger noted above. What do these reveal about your heart condition? Begin a journal. Write these down. Seek to know what the Bible says about these things.
- Go to the Lord. Confess that you have displaced his glory and will for your own. Know that Christ provides forgiveness for and power over the sources and expressions of your ungodly anger. Ask him for help.
- Confess to trusted others your struggle and need. Ask for prayer. Ask them to join you in watching over your heart on this issue. Be accountable to them. Ask them to tell you when they sense anger.
- Seek godly counsel for the issues that are underneath your anger. There may be particular issues of your heart that are stubborn in their resistance to be seen or changed. A godly, biblically-wise counselor could be of significant help.
- Be relentless in your pursuit of putting the sin of ungodly anger to death. Be at war with your anger and all that arouses it in ungodly ways. Make this a primary issue of your growth in the Lord. Stay after it!
- Learn to treasure Christ above all things. Study the person of Christ. Pray to be conformed to him in all that he loves and all that he hates. See his anger aroused at the right things (Mark 3:5; 10:14). See his patience with you. See the holy wrath of God unleashed on Jesus for the payment of your sins. See his great love for you in the Cross. Sorrow, while be thankful, over the sin of your ungodly anger that was nailed to the cross. Rejoice in forgiveness. Learn to live in it by the power of the Spirit.
Below are more scriptures to read and book recommendations. Avail yourself of these. Know that the Lord joins you in this battle!
Further scripture reading: Genesis 4:1-11; 39:1-20; Number 11:1-23; 12:1-15; Psalm 37:7-11; Ecclesiastes 7:8; Isaiah 9:12, 17, 21; 10:24-25; 13:3; Ezekiel 38:18-19; Matthew 5:21-22; Romans 12:17-19; Ephesians 4:26; James 1:19-20.
Suggested books: A Small Book about a Big Problem, by Ed Welch; Good and Angry, by David Powlison.