“Be Angry and Do Not Sin”: Two Marks of Righteous Anger

by Derek Brown

If you survey popular psychological literature, you’ll find that anger is often defined in negative terms. In an article at Psychology Today, for example, Hara Marano describes anger as a “negative experience so closely bound to pain and depression that it can sometimes be hard to know where one of these experiences ends and another begins.” In another article, Marano observes, “people have trouble managing anger and other negative emotions” (emphasis added). Yet, classifying anger as a negative emotion is not entirely accurate. Although anger can stem from unwholesome motives or be expressed in harmful, destructive ways, anger as such is not essentially negative or wrong.

We know that anger is not necessarily negative because God is described as one who is angry at the wicked every day (Ps 5:5). Yes, the Old Testament speaks of God as “slow to anger” (Ex 34:6; Num 14:8) but the Scripture also contains several instances where God’s anger is the centerpiece of the narrative (Num 25:4; 32:14). In the New Testament, Jesus was angry with the religious leaders for allowing the temple to become a place of trade (John 2:13-17) and for their unwillingness to show compassion on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5).  

Anger, therefore, is not necessarily wrong or sinful. In God’s case, anger is the natural response of perfect holiness in the face of sin. God’s anger is always righteous anger.

But that’s God. What about us? Is it possible for Christians to exhibit righteous anger? The Bible acknowledges that our anger may be unrighteous (Col 3:8; James 1:19), and our experience would attest that it often is. But the Scripture also teaches that it is possible for Christians to express righteous anger and that it is our responsibility to do so when circumstances call for it.  

For example, Paul, quoting David from Psalm 4:4, instructs the Christians in Ephesus to “Be angry, but do not sin” (Eph 4:25). In both texts, David and Paul are commanding their readers to be angry. How could they instruct such a thing? Because there are times when it is right and good and wholesome to be angry. Indeed, an absence of anger when a situation calls for it is likely a sign of moral indifference and apathy, not spiritual maturity.   

Indeed, an absence of anger when a situation calls for it is likely a sign of moral indifference and apathy, not spiritual maturity.   

But given our propensity to unrighteous anger, it is vital that we understand what constitutes righteous anger. Not every angry impulse flows from godly motivations, and not every expression of anger is warranted or appropriate. In the remaining portion of this article, we will consider the marks of righteous anger so that we might grow in our capacity to be angry over the right things and angry in the right ways.

Righteous Anger is Angry Over the Right Things
Often our anger is piqued because we’ve been maligned or mistreated. While there is a place for anger over personal mistreatment (Prov 25:23), such anger easily swerves into a selfish concern over our own desires (see James 4:1-3). When it comes to petty offenses, Scripture instructs us to overlook them (Prov 19:11).

But a sure mark that our anger is righteous is that it is roused when God’s glory is maligned and his name mistreated. David was angry because people in Israel were speaking against the Lord and likely dishonoring the Tabernacle and corporate worship in some way (Ps 69:9). John quotes this verse and applies it to the Greater David after he found the temple overrun by commerce and fraudulent business practice. Jesus, acting in righteous anger, flipped over tables and chased the merchants away from the spectacle (John 2:17). Jesus was incensed when his Father was dishonored, not when he was dishonored. Indeed, Jesus endured severe mistreatment without ever becoming angry or vindictive toward his enemies or seeking his own restitution (see Luke 23:34). Righteous anger is anger that is riled when our gracious heavenly Father is slandered and his worship disgraced.

Righteous anger is anger that is riled when our gracious heavenly Father is slandered and his worship disgraced.

Righteous anger is also kindled when we encounter injustice perpetrated against fellow image-bearers. For example, when Jesus found a man with a withered hand in the synagogue, he knew the religious leaders were watching to see if he would conduct illegal “work” on the Sabbath. Knowing their thoughts, he asked, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” Their non-answer was damning. It should have been easy to answer this question: it is never lawful to harm someone, and it is always lawful to do good to someone, regardless of what day of the week it is. In their silence, Mark reports, “Jesus looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). Jesus gets angry when people withhold or even desire to withhold good from others. This kind of anger is good and appropriate. It is also appropriate to be angry when godly people are disgraced—like Jonathan was when his father Saul spoke ill of David (1 Sam 20:34).

The implication, then, is that our anger should be moved by real issues, not superficial ones. When Jonah was embittered over something insignificant, God questioned his right to be angry: “But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant’” (Jonah 4:9). Of course, Jonah didn’t have the right to be angry over the plant, despite his protests. Instead, he should have been concerned over the fate of Nineveh and its inhabitants.

It is good, therefore, to feel anger well up in our hearts when we hear and see people dishonor God with their lips and their lives. We should be incensed when we see people advocating for the murder of unborn children. We should be angry when we hear of people in places of authority using their power to harm, cheat, and steal from others. We should be angry when we are confronted with false teachers who are leading others astray.         

But it’s not enough to have our anger motivated by the right reasons. Our anger must also be expressed in a godly way, or our anger will quickly downgrade to sinful wrath.

Righteous Anger is Angry in the Right Way
Righteous anger is self-controlled anger. Although we may have a good reason to be angry—Christ was blasphemed, a fellow image bearer was mistreated, false teaching is wreaking havoc in people’s lives—we cannot allow that righteous anger to explode into a fury of harsh words and harmful violence. This means that righteous anger doesn’t merely vent itself (Prov 29:11). Rather, those who are righteously angry will control their speech and their body (Prov 14:17; 16:32), and channel that anger toward the problem rather than the person.

We’ve already seen how Jesus focused his anger on problems rather than people. Even in the table-turning episode in the temple, there is no indication that Jesus physically harmed anyone, but only that he removed from the temple that which didn’t belong there. Also, rather than calling down fire from heaven to incinerate the hard-hearted Pharisees, Jesus restored the man’s hand and continued to teach and heal.  

Throughout his ministry, Paul demonstrates this practice of directing one’s anger to the problem rather than the person. For example, while in Macedonia, Paul, Timothy, Luke, and Silas were being harassed by a girl with a spirit of divination who would follow them and cry out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (16:17). Paul eventually became “greatly annoyed” (which is a form of anger). But rather than turning to the girl and telling her to shut up and go away, or, worse, calling down a divine curse upon her, Paul deals with the problem and casts out the demonic spirit (Acts 16:18).

A few months later, while Paul was in Athens, he was provoked in his heart at the idolatry of the city. Again, to say that Paul was provoked is just another way of communicating that he was angry. What does the apostle do? Does he pick up a sword and start hacking away at the idols and the people? Does he berate the philosophers for their stupidity? No, he channeled his anger in an evangelistically productive direction: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17).

The implication is that righteous anger is not merely suppressed anger. Some may think it more godly to never express anger and, rather than channeling their anger in an appropriate direction, they bury it deep within their hearts and choose to ignore it. But when anger is not appropriately dealt with, over time the smoldering embers of one’s misdirected irritation either silently consumes them or explodes into an unbridled rage.

If we’ve been the object of some trivial wrongdoing, we should overlook it. But if our anger is piqued for a worthy reason, we should, with self-control, take action to channel that anger in a fruitful direction.

Anger: Not the Dominant Flavor of Our Lives
Overall, however, Scripture wouldn’t have anger be the dominant flavor of our lives. While self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, anger is not. Moreover, in Christ, Christians live in a perpetual state of God’s grace (Rom 5:1-5). God’s anger no longer hovers over us because we’ve been forgiven of our sins (Col 2:13). It is on the basis of this divine forgiveness that Paul instructs Christians to put away wrath and anger, and to be kind, tenderhearted, and ready to extend forgiveness to fellow sinners (Eph 4:31-32). Like God, Christians should be slow to become angry over personal offenses, slights, insults, and inconveniences (Prov 16:32; Eccl 7:9).

Nevertheless, there is a time to be angry (Eccl 3:8). When that time comes, we must make sure that we control our tongue, control our bodies, and direct our anger at problems rather than people.      

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