How would you characterize our society? While it’s true that all human societies are always populated by sinners and therefore characterized by sin in a general sense, there seems to be times in history when certain cultures and societies are characterized by a few dominant sins.
What about the dominant sins in our American society? Sexual immorality would certainly come to mind. Pride and self-exaltation. Greed and the love of money. Self-Indulgence. Selfish ambition.
But what about anger?
A Washington Post article entitled, “Americans are living in a big anger incubator,” from earlier this summer began with the statement, “Americans are angry.”1 Only a couple sentences into a Wall Street Journal article, also from this past summer you could find this statement: “We are living in a time of great fury.”2 The article was entitled, “Anger management for an angry time.” Another recent Wall Street Journal article from this summer was entitled, “How to keep your temper while stuck at home.”3 During that same time, a columnist in a Pennsylvania newspaper wrote with exasperation: “Good grief. Apparently, America has yet to move past anger phase regarding Covid-19.”4
And if you’re on social media at all, you will notice that anger seems to characterize many people’s personal posts and interactions. Calm, reasoned, restrained dialogue about important issues of the day seem to be the exception, not the rule. And you can find articles all over the place that talk about the health perils of constant anger. One article commenting on people who remain in a state of perpetual anger, states: “But if the anger is sustained and the blood pressure is affected and the heart rate is affected, that indirectly can lead to coronary disease or disease of the heart muscle.”5 Doctors have linked sustained anger to migraines, insomnia, high-blood pressure, and stroke, and many other health issues. Books specializing in anger-management are a dime a dozen. Here are just a few titles:
- Rage: A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming Explosive Anger
- Anger: A Buddhist guide for Cooling the Flame
- Anger Management for Dummies
- The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger
- The Anger Trap: Free Yourself from the Frustrations that Sabotage Your Life.
- Healing the Angry Brain: How Understanding How Your Brain Works Can Help you Control Anger and Aggression
- The Anger Workbook: An Interactive Guide to Anger Management
- For Kids: When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry.
It shouldn’t surprise us that our society is awash in anger. Anger was one of the first sins to flow out of the garden after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and took from the forbidden tree. Granted, you don’t see the word “anger” in the narrative, but anger is certainly expressed: the moment God confronts Adam, the man blames his wife for his troubles. Ultimately, this blame-shifting was a complaint toward God because God had given Adam his wife. Soon after his conversation with Adam, God tells Eve that there will be ongoing friction in her relationship with her husband. God also tells Adam that he will experience frustration in his work of bringing food from the ground.
Anger in the Bible
Anger spreads to Adam and Eve’s children. We find that Cain is “very angry” because God had rejected his offering. This anger eventually leads to the murder of his brother, Abel. After a few generations, God’s summary evaluation of the world he had created was grim: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen 6:11). Violence, of course, is simply the practical outworking of sinful anger.
Even after God floods the earth and wipes out the entire population except Noah, his wife, and his sons and their wives, anger is still an issue, even among God’s people. Esau becomes angry at his brother Jacob because Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. At the end of his life, Jacob’s final word to two of his twelve sons Simeon and Levi is a condemnation of their anger: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. Let my soul come not into their counsel; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel” (Gen 49:7).
Solomon recognized the destructive nature of anger and gave Israel practical instruction on it. According to Solomon’s inspired observations, anger usually produces more sin: “A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression” (Prov 29:22), which is why he instructed God’s covenant community to “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” (Prov 22:24).
The New Testament continues with similar instruction about anger, highlighting the Christian’s responsibility to put sinful anger to death and to not provoke others to anger.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.Ephesians 4:31
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.Ephesians 6:4
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.Colossians 3:5-8
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;1 Timothy 2:8
In this article I want to focus on a statement from the book of James.
“Know this my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for, the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore, put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls.”James 1:19-21
Slow to anger. If people only heeded this wisdom. But we are living in the thick of an outrage culture that seems to value and even promote a quickness to anger. And the quicker, the better. The immediate venting of one’s rage over personal offenses or societal ills is viewed as a virtue and not as what it often is: a lack of self-control and a deep-seated sense of self-importance.
Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak, and Slow to Anger
But I want us first to notice the context. I think most of us take these phrases, “Quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger,” primarily as instruction on how to conduct our personal relationships. And there is plenty of Scripture that would affirm these principles in our personal relationships, and James certainly wouldn’t exclude these principles in what he is saying here. But in this passage, the context seems to indicate that James is emphasizing the hearing and obeying of wisdom, specifically divine wisdom. Be quick to hear wisdom from the Word of God, be slow to speak, guard your tongue and control your anger.
This means that being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger are all connected organically and inextricably with each other. If you are slow to anger, it is likely that you will be quick to hear and slow to speak. And we all recognize this by experience. Anger makes us quick to speak and slow to hear. Anger makes it more difficult to control our tongue and open our ears to hear what others are saying or what the Word of God is saying. Anger tempts us to state our opinions and objections quickly, to use our words as weapons to injure and defeat the other person or to defend ourselves. Ultimately, anger closes our ears to the word of God and wisdom.
Importantly, slowness to anger seems to be the controlling virtue here because it is the only character quality that is grounded in the following sentence: “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). There is something foundational about slowness to anger that controls and guides these other important Christian qualities. If you want to learn how to be slow to speak and quick to hear, then one thing you must do is learn is how to be slow to anger.
James ties slowness to anger specifically to hearing the word of God. If you want to receive the word of God into your soul and spiritually benefit from it, your default demeanor cannot be anger. Notice the connections in this passage: Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and be slow to anger because the anger of God doesn’t produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20). Therefore, because the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God, put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive the word of God with meekness (James 1:21). A meek, gentle disposition is the opposite of an angry disposition. James’ point is this: slowness to anger is essential for cultivating other vital Christian character qualities and the ability to produce the righteousness of God.
The Righteousness of God
This reference to the “righteousness of God” is not referring to righteousness as a gift which makes us right with God, as in Romans (Rom 3:21-26). This is a reference to righteous conduct. James is referring to the righteous life of the one who has already received righteousness as a gift.
In the New Covenant, God grants us righteousness as a gift through faith which puts us in a right relationship with him. But he also grants us practical righteousness in our conduct as a fruit of our right standing with him. Although these two aspects of salvation can be distinguished, they can never to be separated. If you are justified by faith alone, you will care about practical righteousness. If you have received the Spirit by faith apart from works of the law, that same Spirit will produce in you the fruit of practical righteousness (Gal 2:16; 5:22-23). Indeed, one of the main concerns for James in this letter are those people who claim to have a justifying faith but show no evidence of practical righteousness in their life have no grounds on which to say they are Christians (James 2:17-26). Faith will bear itself out in a righteous life.
James’s point is that there is something about anger that inhibits a righteous, spiritually fruitful life. If your default is anger, then you will be hindered from walking in the fullness of holiness because you will, among other things, be slow to hear, quick to defend yourself, and disabled from receiving wisdom.
Righteous and Unrighteous Anger
But we should notice in James 1:20 that the text says, “the anger of man” (ESV). Another way to say it would be “human anger” (NIV 2011, CSB, NLT). James is not dismissing all anger as though there is no place for any anger in a holy life. Actually, as we will see in a moment, holiness demands that we are sometimes angry, and spiritually mature people will know when and how to express anger. Rather, James is referring to anger that is merely human: self-centered rather than God-centered, based on human principles rather than divine revelation, not guided by the supernatural Holy Spirit. That kind of human anger doesn’t produce the righteousness of God.
The command, then, to be slow to anger, means: Do not let anger be your default disposition or your first impulse.
But James’ command here—and this is vital—does not mean: never be angry. We can misread the New Testament commandments (like the ones above) which instruct us to put away all wrath and anger to mean that Christians should never be angry. But this would be a bad misunderstanding of the New Testament and would logically lead to moral indifference.
Never Get Angry Again?
There’s a semi-popular book out by psychologist David L. Lieberman entitled, Never Get Angry Again. Now, taken as counsel not to let our anger get out of control, that’s fine. But taken as a wholesale approach to life, that’s not good advice. We can’t make the mistake of thinking that a sign of spiritual growth is that you never get angry. A total absence of anger in your life may actually be an indication of spiritual immaturity and cowardice. If you never get angry about anything, it merely demonstrates that you don’t really care about anything enough to let your emotions be moved. Scripture teaches us that there is a good and healthy kind of anger that God’s people will express in the right ways, in the right proportion, for the right reasons, at the right times. In other words, God is shaping in his people a growing capacity for righteous anger.
Indeed, instruction to be slow to anger assumes that you will get angry! Just as we are to speak about some things, yet be slow and thoughtful when we open our mouths (i.e., slow to speak), so we are expected to get angry about some things, but only to be slow and thoughtful about how and over what we get angry.
Yet, in order to understand righteous anger, we need to first consider, not human anger, but divine anger. Already in this article we’ve noted the onset of human anger from the fall onward. Remarkably, it’s not human anger that takes center stage in the biblical narrative: it’s God’s anger that is of primary concern for the biblical authors.
For example, early on in Exodus, we find that the anger of the Lord kindled against Moses because Moses didn’t want to speak to or lead Israel on God’s behalf (Ex 4:14). The Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel because his people were complaining about their misfortunes and he struck them down with a great plague (Num 11:1ff). God’s anger was provoked against Aaron and Miriam because they were jealous of Moses’ authority (Num 12:9). God finally executed what Jeremiah called his “fierce anger” against Israel for their persistent rebellion (Jer 51:45).
This sampling of biblical passages teaches us an important truth: there is a kind of anger that is good, wholesome, and holy. Every time God expresses his anger, it is conducted for the right reasons, in the right way, in the right proportion, toward the right people, at the right time. Therefore, we can conclude that anger it not necessarily sinful. That’s why the title of Lieberman’s book is unhelpful, precisely because anger can be the expression of righteous and holy character. In the case of God, his anger is always the appropriate expression of his righteous and holy character. The flip side is true as well: to not express anger in particular situations would be wrong and unjust. The natural and wholesome response of righteous character in the face of sin is holy anger.
God’s Slowness to Anger
But, as we’ve mentioned, God’s anger is always for the right reasons and conducted in the right way. While it’s true that God’s anger toward his people is an important theme throughout the Old Testament narrative, it is not true that God is flippant, arbitrary, capricious, or unpredictable when it comes to his anger. Actually, God himself and the biblical writers characterize God as being “slow to anger.”
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…Exodus 34:6
They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.Nehemiah 9:17
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.Psalm 86:15
The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.Psalm 103: 8
The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.Psalm 145:8
This divine character quality is evident even in the face of man’s first transgression. When Adam sins, God doesn’t approach him in a rage. He asks him questions: “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat” (Gen 3:11). He does the same with Eve. God could have killed Adam and Eve and sent them to eternal punishment the moment they ate the forbidden fruit. Instead, he preserves their lives and approaches them with patient inquiry about their sin and then later offers them with the promise of a Savior and provides blood atonement for their sin.
After God’s dealings with Adam and Eve, it takes multiple generations of great and widespread wickedness before God destroys the earth’s population with a flood, after which he promises to never again conduct such a large-scale act of destruction on the earth. When working with wayward Israel, God patiently endures much sin and rebellion before he enacts any kind of judgments. It even takes nearly 1000 years of Israel existing as a nation before God finally sends them off to exile. Not to mention that meanwhile, amidst all this sin and rebellion, God pours out opportunity after opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness and atonement. God is slow to anger. He is not quick to condemn and judge and destroy his enemies.
The very fact that you are reading this article in unbelief, having not repented from your rebellion against and indifference toward God is proof that God is slow to anger, for you deserve nothing but eternal punishment right now for your refusal to bow the knee to Jesus Christ and to come to God in his terms. God is slow to anger.
But he does get angry.
Reasons for God’s Anger
In the Old Testament, God’s anger is roused by incompetent, selfish spiritual leadership (Zech 10:3), persistent, unrepentant sin (Judges 2:20; Micah 5:15; Ezek 7:8; 20:8, 21), idolatry (Deut 4:25; 7:4; Deut 32:21; Judges 2:12; Jer 8:19; 44:8; 1 Kings 14:9; 2 Chron 28:25; 34:25; 1 Kings 11:9), unlawful worship (Lev 10:1-2), occultic practices like human sacrifice, fortune-telling, omens, and sorcery, mediums, necromancy (2 Chron 33:6), presumption regarding God’s holy things (2 Sam 6:6), and complaining (Num 11:1).
In the Gospels we find a Christ who is angered by religious hypocrisy (Matt 23:1-39), hearts that are hard toward God and people (Mark 3:5), and unbelief in the face of clear gospel evidence. In the remaining sections of the NT, we learn that God becomes particularly angry when people reject the salvation he has provided in Christ (Heb 10:25-31). But don’t let these texts fool you into thinking that God is only angry at a few sins. All of mankind apart from Christ is currently in rebellion against their creator, and God’s wrath presently rests on all people who have not turned from their sin and believed in Christ (John 3:36; Rom 3:10).
God’s people grow in their godlike character, therefore, we will begin to grow in our capacity to express righteous anger, which will be a reflection of God himself. If your heart is fixed on God and you admire his attributes and his Person, your heart will be shaped to love what he loves and hate what he hates. Righteous anger consists of these two elements: (1) it is anger over actual sin; and (2) anger conducted in the right way. And we have examples of God’s people throughout Scripture expressing righteous anger. Consider:
- Gen 31:36: Jacob got angry at Laban for treating him unfairly.
- Gen 34:7: The sons of Jacob were angry because one of Leah’s daughters was violated by another man.
- 1 Sam 11:6: The Spirit of the Lord produced righteous anger in Saul.
- 1 Sam 15:11: Samuel got angry with Saul because he turned from the Lord.
- 1 Sam 20:34: Jonathan got angry at Saul when his father publicly disgraces David.
- Ex 11:8: Moses was angry at Pharaoh’s rebellion against God.
- Ex 16:20: Moses was angry at Israel for not listening to him.
- Ex 32:19: Moses got angry at Israel’s idolatry.
- Psalm 119:128: The Psalmist learns from God’s precepts and therefore he hates every false way.
- Psalm 119:53: Hot indignation seizes the Psalmist because there were people who had forsaken God’s law.
- John 2:13-17: Jesus orders the money-loving Pharisees to cease and desist their fraud by overturning tables and chasing people out of the temple with a whip.
- Galatians 1:6-9: Paul gets angry with the false teachers in Galatia who were distorting the gospel.
Righteous anger is a mark of godliness, and it has characterized God’s people from the earliest pages of Scripture. When grave injustice is perpetuated against another image-bearer, or when God’s Word is disgraced and disrespected, or when you see God’s people falling headlong into idolatry, or when you observe someone apostatize who once formally professed Christ, or you see the corporate church departing from the gospel, you should feel a sense of righteous anger. There is even a place for righteous anger over personal ill-treatment, although the emphasis in Scripture is on returning evil with blessing, not seeking vindication for ourselves (Matt 5:44-49; Rom 12).
Five Reasons Why it is Vital to Be Slow to Anger
Why slow to anger? The command to be slow to anger is vital for these five reasons:
(1) Slowness to Anger is Godlike. As we’ve seen already, when we are slow to anger, we reflect the very character of God. If we are going to glorify God in our lives and bring him honor in the midst of an outrage culture, we must be slow to anger.
(2) Slowness to anger enables good judgment. When you are slow to anger you are able to hear the word of God and view every situation within a biblical framework so that you can rightly discern what merits your anger and what doesn’t. In other words, slowness to anger enables you to think clearly. “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov 19:11). Not every incident requires your anger, and only if you are slow to anger can you discern what situations require your indignation and what infractions should be overlooked. Slowness to anger also guards us from the temptation to vindicate ourselves if we have been accused. In other words, slowness to anger enables you to be angry about the right things in the right way at the right time for the right reasons.
(3) Slowness to anger adorns your character. Contrary to a culture that views outrage as a mark of virtue, it’s actually slowness to anger that glorifies a person. Who do you admire? What kind of people do you think display strength and valor? Army Rangers? Navy Seals? Now, there is plenty of strength and valor to be found in Army Rangers and Navy Seals. But Scripture actually portrays those who are slow to anger as those who possess greater strength than an elite soldier. “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov 16:32).
(4) Slowness to anger keeps you from speaking foolishly and sinfully. When our anger is boiling over, we are far more likely to say something unkind or downright stupid. Remaining slow to anger guards us from saying something foolish. “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Prov 14:29).
(5) Slowness to anger enables you to defuse a volatile situation. Finally, when we are slow to anger, we are able to enter potentially explosive situations, accurately assess them, and offer wisdom that makes for peace. If we are quick to get angry, we will likely be carried away by other angry people in a given scenario, disabled from thinking clearly about what is going on, and not likely offer any helpful wisdom. “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Prov 15:18)
The Foundation of our Slowness to Anger
But how can we be slow to anger? What is the spiritual root of this ability to control our anger? Remember, every commandment in the New Testament is given in the context of the gospel. Obedience to biblical commands is not through sheer will power. New Testament commands are given to Christians who have been justified by Christ’s work alone, apart from their works (Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-7). James’ instruction to be slow to anger here is no different. The deepest reason why we are able to be slow to anger is because we no longer bear God’s anger, and because we no longer bear God’s anger, we are no longer angry with God.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with GodRomans 5:1
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.Colossians 1:21
This reality—that we have peace with God—should weigh sweetly upon our souls and give us dispositions of grace, mercy, and love toward people, even those who wrong us, because the deepest cause for our anger has been removed. Angry Christians are those who don’t really understand what has occurred in their salvation. Perpetually angry Christians are walking contradictions.
But we can say more. We are enabled to be slow to anger because we know that every wrong committed—against us or against others—will be ultimately judged in one of two places: at the cross of Jesus Christ or in eternal judgment (Rom 3:21-26; cf. Rev 20:11-15). If the person with whom you are angry is a Christian, their sin has already been forgiven at the cross of Christ. Your anger toward another can’t be out of control or last long because God is no longer angry with them: Jesus Christ has borne God’s anger in their place.
If the person with whom you are angry is not a Christian, their sin will eventually be dealt with in eternal hell, so they are more worthy of our compassion than our anger. Prayerfully, they may come to Christ and have all their sin forgiven at the cross. Either way, these two spiritual realities should permeate our lives so that our anger is expressed in the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons, in the right proportion, and toward the right person.
Through faith in Christ, we can be slow to anger.
1Elizabeth Chang, “Americans are living in a big anger incubator.’ Experts have tips for regulating our rage.” Washington Post, June 30, 2020.
2Elizabeth Bernstein, “Anger Management for an Angry Time,” Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2020.
3Dan Ariely, “How to Keep Your Temper While You Are Stuck at Home,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2020.
4Tom Purcell, “Perpetual Anger no help in pandemic,” in TribLive, July 20, 2020.
5Michael O. Schroeder, “The physical and mental toll of being angry all the time.” US News, October 26, 2017. https://health.usnews.com/wellness/mind/articles/2017-10-26/the-physical-and-mental-toll-of-being-angry-all-the-time